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  • Christina Holzhauser; Reprinted with permission

How to Screw up Gracefully

Making a mistake

I'm thrilled to have guest Adrienne MacIain here with us today! She is here to share a timeless lesson that every single human being will encounter at some point and how to handle it with grace. Take it away, Adrienne!

File this one under: learn from my mistakes.

Lucky for you, I’ve made a lot of them. Some of them quite spectacular.

For example, the time I failed to realize that my personal (read: pornographic) texts were being broadcast on the big screen in the conference room. During an all-hands meeting. 🤦‍♀️

Or the time I booked Bossman on a flight for a conference, only I did it for the conference dates the previous year. And only noticed the error about a week ahead of the actual conference dates. Oops.

So yeah, I know from mistakes. And I have some wisdom to share.

When I make a mistake, I have learned that my reflex response is to jump in and fix it as quickly as possible, a heady mixture of adrenaline and abject terror still coursing through my veins. The impulse behind this is logical enough: Something is wrong! Quick, make it right again!! But as it turns out, this is, in a word, inadvisable.

In my heightened emotional state, I am more likely to make additional mistakes, causing a kind of cascading catastrophe effect. To illustrate, I’ll tell you the story of Yesterday’s Majestic Waterfall o’ Screwups:

I had just returned from a lunch that inadvertently went long due to incredibly slow service (I’m glaring at you, Cafe Paloma), and opened my email to find an important investor meeting waiting to be scheduled for the following day. In my rush to get it on the calendar as quickly as possible, I failed to notice that my calendar was open to the following week.

But you know who didn’t fail to notice? The investor.

And you know who didn’t fail to notice that the investor didn’t fail to notice? My boss. And he didn’t sugarcoat his displeasure: when it comes to investors, coming off as unprofessional can be more than a red flag, it can be a death sentence. It’s like showing up to your first date with a sexy millionaire and immediately spilling wine all over the tablecloth. Even if it’s only white wine, it still doesn’t bode well for your chances at a second date.

Rattled by his reaction, as well as by what was at stake, I immediately went back to the calendar, scanned for the offending event, and rescheduled it for the week prior.

A moment later, a message popped up from Bossman: “What is going on with the scheduling??” My heart dropped, my stomach lurched. In my panicky haste, I had moved a completely different VC meeting to the previous week! Now there were TWO wrong events on the calendar!!

Again, I sprung into adrenaline-fueled action, quickly switching the event I had just moved back to the week after and moving the correct event to the week before.


It was another message from Bossman. My heart was pounding in my ears and I could taste bile welling up in my mouth. He pointed out that although I had moved the second event back to the correct week, I had moved it to the wrong day. “I’m sorry but this is really exasperating because every time you move a meeting the other person gets an email. So they’re going to see a whole stream of rescheduled meetings, none of them right.”

By this time I was on the verge of tears. I knew he was right. We were well beyond spilled wine at this point. This was an entire tray of Bloody Marys in the laps of not one but TWO VCs (which, by the way, is exactly what happened on my second day waiting tables at the Palomino many lifetimes ago, but that’s another story). I was about to rush back to the calendar to fix it once and for all when another message from Bossman arrived:

“Go take a deep breath,” it read. “Walk away from the keyboard, and then remember: MEASURE TWICE CUT ONCE.”

I stepped away from the computer, walked over to the window and watched a couple of seagulls fight over the remnants of a sandwich. And I asked myself: how did this happen? How had I let things spin so far out of control in such a short span of time?

As David Rock explains in his brilliant book Your Brain At Work:

“When the limbic system gets overly aroused, it reduces the resources available for prefrontal cortex functions. If you could recall the name of a work colleague in one second without arousal, with arousal it may take five seconds, or you might not be able to remember the name for an hour. The same thing happens for all the prefrontal cortex functions, including understanding, deciding, memorizing, and inhibiting. With less glucose and oxygen to get work done, the complex maps in your prefrontal cortex required for conscious processes don’t function as they should. Your preexisting limitations get even worse.”

Put simply: drama dumbs you down. Like, a lot.

In retrospect, armed with this knowledge, it makes perfect sense that I would make a series of increasingly boneheaded mistakes as my emotional state worsened. In fact, it would have been rather miraculous to have successfully performed the kind of complex tasks regularly required of an EA on the mental equivalent of a laptop in safe mode.

And what do you do when your computer starts acting up?

That’s right: you take a moment to reboot.

Emotions happen. The idea that I can avoid ever feeling rattled or scattered at work is beyond laughable. But I can, and will, learn to recognize the signals my body sends when the limbic system takes hold, and take that as my cue to SLOW DOWN, take a deep breath, do whatever I can to clear my head and get back to a calm, centered state of mind before taking even the simplest action. And I encourage you all to do the same.

Measure twice, cut once. This will be my new mantra.

Adrienne MacIain

Adrienne MacIain is a seasoned storyteller and former executive assistant with a passion for empowerment. A fervent cheerleader for those who dedicate their lives to supporting others, she loves making mistakes and helping others learn from them. She is currently applying her eclectic skill set, ENFP personality type, and high EQ to the task of bringing the localiting community (folks who prefer to stay in other peoples' homes when they travel, and/or host travelers in their homes) together to improve the future of hospitality.

Link to the original article: How to Screw Up Gracefully

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