Three Big Mistakes – what have I learned?

A black office chair with a harsh light beamed in above it.

Written by Paul Ginsberg

9th January 2024

You typically spend far less time at the destination, than on the actual journey itself. Given that, I’m going to share with you a few too interesting journeys that I have been on and the lessons I’ve learned – partly because I want to demonstrate that this happens to all of us from time to time, and partly because if there are any nuggets here that help you avoid these full experiences then that’s good too. Failing that wry amusement will also do!

Background

I read an article recently where someone was taking a potshot at “bad” decisions someone else had made. They said how daft each of the decisions were, but there was a huge undertone suggesting that the author could have done better themselves.

If you find yourself in this position, ask yourself the following three questions:

  • What – if anything – would I have done differently at the time, not knowing the information I have now.
  • Would I have even been in that position? Would my peer group have recognised my skills and let me make those decisions? If not, why not, and what does this say about me and/or society?
  • What mistakes have I made, which are obvious to others, but weren’t obvious to me at the time. Thinking back to those mistakes, what have I learned?

For me, asking these questions helps improve my empathy skills – especially if I encounter similar situations in the future, whether myself directly or in helping others.

With that in mind, I present three stories of where I have made big mistakes, to show that we are all human – not perfect automata – and I include what I have learned from each one. In the process of writing this, I was delighted to discover a thumping takeaway* which I share with you if you read on or skip to the very end!!

*well, in my opinion!

Story One: Presumption

This one was early in my career. I was working for a housing association and scheduled to be the member of staff for the early shift on the IT support desk. One day directly, after a bank holiday, I was due in at 8am but instead came in at 8.45am. I wasn’t running late, but I had decided that it was unlikely that anyone would need my assistance.

A black office chair with a harsh light beamed in above it.

As I came in, the IT director (a number of levels above me), stood up from my seat and walked wordlessly into his office.

What did I take away?

That I couldn’t second-guess someone else’s needs. The very nature of IT support is that we are there for when the unexpected happens. So if – usually – it’s all quiet, perhaps someone had come in and had wanted to complete some work. I had failed the organisation by not being there.

Credit to that director though. He didn’t use any threats. Just his body language told me that I had let him down and failed to uphold the high standards that he had thought that I could capably deliver. He never spoke of it, but it also showed me leadership is more than words.

Story Two: Rules are Rules

This landed me with a first and final written warning (not the only one in my career!). I was working at an IT Managed Services company and the fridge was overflowing with milk for coffees and cereals, with surplus supplies being binned each week. I had pointed this out to management but it wasn’t a priority for them, so I had started to take home a few pints on a weekly basis.

Picture of a lot of milk bottles (on milk delivery truck)

One day someone else spotted me doing this and reported me for theft. Cue lots of paperwork. It’s likely that if I were in my probation period, I would have been sacked instantly.

My boss saved me, taking time away from their busy workload. It was a huge kerfuffle.

Sorry for what I did? No. Sorry for how I went about it: yes!

What did I learn?

Rules are rules. You can flex them, but particularly if your CV is littered with many jobs – as my one was at that time – weigh up the reward versus the risk. It was pennies; to be fair it was the environmental waste that I really hated.

As I write this, it now occurs to me the workaround would have been to send an email to facilities explaining what I was doing with a “do let me know in the next two weeks if you don’t want me to start doing this” line at the end. I love that sort of email these days because people then have to make an effort to defend stupid working practices 😈 I tend to find that if it is important to that individual or they have concerns they do get back to me surprisingly quickly.

Story Three: Pride

I very recently had an issue with a field that was updating itself with a weird value every time an integration ran. I tried looking at log files but the information produced was overwhelming for me. So I then thought about what my escalation paths would be and what I would need to use any escalation paths.

Once I thought about it, it turned out that I hadn’t got into a situation where I could automatically recreate the error on demand. So I sat down and asked a friend (thanks Tim!) to body double with me because I was by now struggling a bit. By having Tim there as an accountability partner, he helped my brain focus. Only then did I use my own whits to figure out how to manually recreate the error, and that in turn led to me successfully figuring out a suitable solution from a very unexpected direction.

When should you ask for help? As soon as something doesn’t work? After an hour? After two hours? This one took three weeks before I even got around to escalating it, from trying to solve it by myself. Admittedly we discussed it internally and it wasn’t classified as urgent, but still!

There’s a case for thumping a problem until it works, and then there’s delaying a business from achieving its goal. I often find myself repeating various attempts to fix problems and then losing track. So, as I write this, what could I do still be improving in myself – after a decade of being a Salesforce consultant – and even longer being a problem solver?

  • Document what I have tried. And when I say “document”, a simple scribble on Notepad++ or a piece of paper will suffice. Saves repetition and foolhardy optimism.
  • Set deadlines (I’ll investigate for YY minutes/hours).
  • Get feedback on how long the problem can realistically remain an issue, especially if the problem is still occurring after a day or two.
  • Brainstorm escalation options/share the problem and get different perspectives. Sometimes I keep on trying things because I feel there is no way out. I should be asking: “What if I can’t fix this by myself? What would my escalation pathways be?”

Takeaway: Knowing when to ask for help is still work in progress; but if I don’t practise doing it, I will never improve!

A mistake that wasn’t a mistake

Earlier this year I started to attend an ADHD group and one of the most impactful things we do is sharing our experiences with each other. ADHD doesn’t necessarily equal social awkwardness, but it can – sometimes I “speak before I think” as some people would say. What’s actually happening is that my brain is processing multiple thought strands at different speeds.

By hearing (many) other people with ADHD people expressing similar issues I realise that I am not alone. Yes, I put my foot in it. Often. I say things that part of me realises are inappropriate, but I now understand that that’s only part of me, and the whatever area of my brain which controls my mouth has got there first.

So, are people offended by me and don’t always hang around, or simply don’t get me? Sure. But the world is an amazing, incredible and beautiful place. You, dear reader, are reading this. You’re hopefully enjoying what I’ve written. Equally I have many lovely, compassionate, patient, understanding friends. If not everyone hangs around, I’ve learned to understand that that’s fine. We are trained to always want more but that’s an infinite goal, so instead I’m learning how to be happy with my lot. I can improve – and there’s a world out there to help me do that! – but it doesn’t take away from who I am right now.

So what’s the ultimate takeaways?

Don’t be too harsh on yourself (or others!) as we learn and grow from our mistakes. How’s that for a kind and realistic New Year’s resolution?

With thanks to Marie van Roekel and Kathryn Chlosta for their proof reading and improvement skills.

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