Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lessons Learned

My job duties revolve around continually asking a set of very specific questions. I spend my days focusing on something that most people would prefer to forget - their failures.

Their failures, mistakes, faux pas or flat out fuck ups, or at least the threat of them hanging overhead, are what keeps me in business.

I look at people and organizations from all walks of life, trying to figure out what it is they actually do. Surprisingly, this is rarely as easy as it sounds. It never ceases to amaze me how many people can’t put into words what they spend their days pursuing. They can talk on and on, loading their comments with their particular industry’s jargon and the fashionable business buzz-words of the day, but they cannot succinctly say in 25 words or less “This is what I do all day.”

Then there are the label people. They tell me they are a Vice President of Production or Director of Development and I am supposed to know what duties that entails.

Eventually though, this is sorted out. Then, I get to ask the very best question - what happens when they screw up while doing what they do? I want to know the end result of what happens when they make a minor error. Or, when they make a huge, glaring, catastrophic, mistake of epic proportions. Their boo-boo may be so small as to seem inconsequential or so large the National Guard is called out and the FBI shows up at their door. I don’t care. I hunger for the nitty-gritty details of it all.

Every potential inaccuracy, every blunder, every oversight, every miscalculation and so forth, is mulled over in my head, the potential scenarios replayed on an endless loop, probabilities measured and intangibles considered. My brain has a running spreadsheet of every detail and organizes them into the “Positive” or “Negative” column. Then just like Santa and his ‘Naughty or Nice’ list, I get to pass judgment. Can we live with the potential errors always looming on the horizon with this group? Or should we walk away, vowing not to touch that mess with a ten foot pole?

Sound fun? Probably not, but some people take a perverse sense of gratification when they rake someone else’s failings or potential failings over the coals. I hope I’m not one of them. But if not fun, it is certainly very enlightening. And it is a great exercise when you are forced to consider the failures and faux pas of your own life.

While I have done this work for several years, I have only recently begun to consider what lessons I can take for my personal use. And there are definitely lessons to be had.

I think that people and even entire organizations have difficulty expressing what it is exactly that they do, because when they break it down to it’s most basic level, to the core actions and responsibilities, most of us don’t think what we do is particularly important or interesting. Or we may feel that what we do does matter, but worry others won’t see its value. So we dress it up in jargon and an artificial language full of acronyms few understand, hoping how we spend our days will sound more glamorous or important.

Also, what we do 8 to 10 hours of every waking day has increasingly become boiled down to a single label and we have all developed internal definitions of what that label really means. But our internal definitions are inconsistent and labels like Secretary, Assembly Line Supervisor, Lawyer, Customer Service Rep or CEO rarely define what that person actually does or, how important what they do actually is.

Whether their contribution is important to the continuation of mankind, or meeting a quarterly sales goal, shouldn’t really matter. What they do is almost always important to someone for some reason, or it wouldn’t be done. (Well, ideally this should be the case and I'm feeling idealistic.) And whether something is important to one person or one million people, it has value.

As to blunders, goof-ups, mistakes or screw-ups, people find it tremendously difficult to discuss their own failures or the failures of an organization tied closely to them. It is hard to admit when we fuck something up. Just look at our outgoing President. He has spent considerable time in the last month and especially in the last week trying to make his absolutely dismal failures sound like minor irritations. Something so inconsequential he cannot believe the rest of the world even noticed.

The rest of us may not have messed up something so thoroughly or on quite such a grand scale, as our soon to be departing leader, but our own mistakes feel pretty big and overwhelming when they are floating around in our heads.

I’ve committed my share of transgressions, omissions and slip ups. And I’ve been deeply embarrassed over many of them. Forcing myself to admit to some has been incredibly painful. But I am a firm believer in the theory that you learn something best once you already know the consequences of not knowing. We learn far more from the mistakes we have made in our lives than we ever learn in a classroom. Most importantly, we learn what it means to be human.

And so I try to approach what I do each day of my job with a sense of optimism. If someone can show that they learned from the error of their ways so I no longer have to worry about them making the same mistake twice, I am usually willing to cut them some slack. Better yet, if they have applied the knowledge gained from one error to other types of problems they could encounter in the future, then to me they are worth gambling on.

Humans are fallible. We all need to be accountable for our own actions and there are some mistakes or errors in judgment so large they present a hurdle that can never be overcome. But when we start to think others are error-proof or, worse yet, we are error proof, our fallibility usually hits us over the head with a sledge hammer. A hard lesson learned.

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