How to embrace your worst mistake at work

Let me tell you about the most embarrassing thing I’ve done at my job thus far.

I was about a year into the job. Still new, but seasoned enough that I felt like I could finally put in for a longer vacation.

I made a plan and submitted my request for 10 days of uninterrupted bliss.

I worked through any last emails, wrapped up all of my projects, tied up any loose ends, and on the last day before vacation, I decided spur of the moment that I would set up an Out-of-Office auto-reply email response.

At that time, it wasn’t a necessary and standard company practice. Some people did it and some didn’t when they left for a longer trip. But in my haste, I made one fatal flaw.

I didn’t ask for help.

Instead, I decided that I could figure it out and looked up quickly how to set this up. It’s not really that hard, right?

To be fair, it’s not.

But, as fate would have it, I screwed it up. Royally.

The away-message that I set up didn’t just auto-reply to the new emails that came in. No, that would have been too easy.

Instead, it somehow sent an “I’m out of the office on vacation” message to every single email that I had previously responded to in my inbox.

To this day I still have no idea how I set that up like that.

What I do know is that when I got back from vacation, I had sent an additional 600+ emails of the same out-of-office text. I emailed just about every account I had been working with as well as just about every team member on our staff.

Welcome to the new guy.

When I returned, I had so many confused customers and a lot of co-workers who were frustrated and ready to give me a hard time.

It was a rookie mistake. It made the company look bad and called my judgment and my capabilities into question.

In the face of my mistake, I had a decision to make.

Do I make an excuse? Act like it wasn’t a big deal? Or do I own it? Embrace it?

If you care about your work, it is rarely easy to be the person who willingly embraces your mistakes. Whether it’s pride, fear, or just a general lack of awareness, owning up to a problem that makes you look bad is never a fun situation to be in.

Although it’s not fun, learning how to embrace your mistakes isn’t just a nice skill to have. It’s necessary. Especially if you want to truly stand out.

When it comes to embracing mistakes, here are three truths to keep in mind.

Mistakes are inevitable

“If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.” Vince Lombardi

Many of us have grown up aiming for perfection. We do everything in our power to be perfect. But the problems start to arise as we realize that when we target perfection, we often end up with unsatisfied souls and uninventive spirits.

A good boss will want you to be excellent, not perfect.

Excellence allows for growth and adjustment.

Excellence is rooted in an understanding that you aren’t where fully where you want to be, but you are on your way and you’re doing to a great job as you journey. It’s a process, a moving towards that which is most important.

Perfection is a destination and the end of a journey. It is the finish line, the end of the trail, the proverbial edge of the cliff.

Perfection is unattainable because mistakes are inevitable.

Once you absorb that reality, you can begin living in the liberation of pursuing excellence.

Embracing doesn’t equal settling

When you commit to embracing your blunders, it’s important to note what you are simultaneously not committing to.

You are not committing to settling for average. You are not committing to not caring about the negative consequences of your actions or your blunders. Just because we all make mistakes doesn’t make the consequences of our actions any less real.

You are not committing to overlooking the offense, blaming your blunders on other people, or refusing to recognize the validity of the root issues at play.

This is because embracing blunders does not equal settling.

For me, I had to feel the frustration of my colleagues and customers. I had to apologize. I had to deal with the fact that I needed to now rebuild trust, which took time and extra energy. And I had to be okay and laugh with my teammates when people joked about it. I had to embrace my blunder. I didn’t have to settle.

Character over competency

When it comes to embracing your blunders, it’s important to remember that character often trumps competency.

To be clear, competency is super important. Being good at your job and being excellent are both really valuable traits.

But not at the expense of your character.

When the going gets tough and you make mistakes, you will be tempted to compromise your character for the sake of your competency. That is the slippery slope you should try to avoid at all costs.

The legendary basketball coach John Wooden spoke often about character. One of my favorite sayings that has stuck with me for years is:

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. You character is who you really are, while your reputation is merely who others think you are.”

When it comes to embracing your blunders, aim to focus on your character first, then your competency.

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Maybe you haven’t had your first big blunder at work. Maybe you have.

If you have a perfect track record, this article is for you because sooner or later, you’ll be in a place where you come to the same point of decision as I did when I returned from that first decision.

When you’re looking a blunder or mistake right in the face, right then, you will need to make the call: “Do I make an excuse? Act like it wasn’t a big deal? Or do I own it? Embrace it?”

If you want to stand out, embrace it.

This article first appeared on Medium.