We all make mistakes. It’s the nature of being flawed (hairless) apes. It’s also the nature of work. The modern workplace is complicated and, as much as we strive for efficiency, excellence, and understanding, hiccups are inevitable.
But here’s the thing: if we’re reflective, mature, and considerate people (which we all clearly are, amirite?), mistakes are opportunities for personal and professional growth. So we thought we’d ask around the offices and see what wisdom nuggets our coworkers have reclaimed from the maw of the fiddlesticks monster.
The mistake: An overreliance on others
The story: At her first job out of college—and feeling a little insecure and wanting to do a bang-up job—one communications staffer constantly asked her more experienced colleague exactly how to do many technical assignments. Eventually, her colleague very politely responded, “How about you do a Google search for some of your questions before asking me?” Bright red with embarrassment, she realized she’d been asking questions with easily found answers. From then on, she honed her critical-thinking and online-search skills to figure things out for herself.
The lesson: Your question is not unique. It’s likely been asked by thousands—possibly millions—of people before you. And with a worldwide knowledge database at our fingertips (thank you, internet!), it’s easier than ever to find answers with a few simple keystrokes. This not only frees up our colleagues to do what they need to do, but also helps us build the skills we’ll need as we advance in our careers. Or, to put it simply, learn to fish so you’re not dependent on others for your meals.
The mistake: When rote goes wrong
The story: Sometimes when working on super basic stuff in Photoshop, a communications staffer clicks the wrong thing at the wrong time or doesn’t click the right thing at the right time. Her mouse finger misfires. And, as a result, her mouse-hap creates stunningly cool or interesting designs.
The lesson: First, our intentions are not always the best path forward. Sometimes doing something in a different way rejiggers our brains and shows us new possibilities we couldn’t have conceived of. Second, modern tools are complicated and there’s no one way to do things. The phrase “trial and error” includes the word “error” for a reason—so try things. You never know what you might discover.
The mistake: Biting off more than you can chew
The story: Imagine you’re a copywriter doing your work-a-day copy thing and you think to yourself, “There’s so much more I could be doing, learning, experiencing!” So you go out and nab yourself a job with more diverse writing needs. Say it’s a small startup where your communication skills will be helpful across more media. And it’s great. Now you’re writing web copy, press releases, social posts, digital advertising, and whatever other responsibilities they can throw at you. But with all that variety comes the added pressure to be an expert user of multiple delivery platforms, maintain content calendars, source all the information you need from different department heads, and analyze the metrics so the output’s performance improves over time. And all the while, what you’d really love is to have time to craft a damn fine sentence because remember, you’re a writer.
The lesson: We all have types of work we like to do and types of work that feel like drudgery. We also all have core strengths and areas of weakness. And while it’s important to work on those weaknesses so we can grow and improve, if the job leans too heavily into what we struggle with rather than what we love, we’re just not going to be happy. Finding that sweet spot where we can experience both the positive feedback of success while stretching ourselves to grow is what makes work worth doing. Too much of one gets boring. Too much of the other gets overwhelming. Find your sweet spot. And, when seeking new career opportunities, do your due diligence so you don’t end up at the bottom of a bucket of overwhelm.
The mistake: Not knowing company procedures
The story: One of our career services staffers had a very different gig once upon a time: she worked as an entertainer on cruise ships (for reals?!). She and a crewmate responded incorrectly to an emergency signal during one of the ship’s weekly drills. Afterward, they were called in to face the ship’s safety officer to answer for their failure to follow procedure. He was a stern, intimidating man with a notoriously fierce bark backed up by a real bite. They sat down across from the safety officer, the dictionary definition of authority in his perfectly pressed white uniform adorned with an intimidating number of stripes on the shoulders. The two crewmates were contrite, apologizing profusely and offering their excuses (“we’re new to this ship,” “we misunderstood,” “we thought we were supposed to…”). It quickly became apparent, however, that no apology, no matter how earnest, was going to be good enough. This was going to be a severe dressing down, full stop. No one was fired, but lessons were sorely learned.
The lesson: Different work cultures rely on different levels of fealty to authority. A cruise line’s safety officer has a bit more at stake than an agency’s creative director, for instance. And while this safety officer’s lack of empathy toward his charges occasionally veered perilously close to the line separating admonishment from bullying, our coworker reached into her reserve of empathy and compassion to understand that he was quite literally responsible for the lives of everyone aboard the ship. And the weight of that responsibility gave him little wiggle room when it came to procedural mistakes. While no one likes being reprimanded—and those in positions of authority do have a responsibility to use their own empathy—it is helpful to remember that the burden of their responsibilities is genuine, tangible, and hefty. Bosses are people too.
The mistake: Not knowing your limitations
The story: One of our staffers works with the executive team. At times, the job can require working under tight deadlines and being tasked with finding solutions to problems that aren’t always in his wheelhouse. He’s noticed that, while he’s scrambling to find a workable solution, someone else responds to the thread with an elegant answer.
The lesson: It’s essential to be helpful, proactive, and willing when working on teams, especially when workloads get heavy. But, no matter how much elbow grease we apply to a problem, none of us know what we don’t know. In those instances, instead of madly trying to download expertise off the interwebs or out of thin air, the more salient solution is to find a person who knows the answer (Firewood is rife with them). We can’t be experts in everything, so ask for help.
The mistake: Reading the tea leaves incorrectly
The story: One of our associate creative directors accepted a creative management position at a San Francisco-based ad agency early in 2019. The plan was to bring the agency’s copy function in-house (after years of outsourcing). Excited to lead a major initiative, he settled in and waited to meet with the agency founders to enact the change. And he waited. And then waited some more. Time passed. Frustration ensued. His mistake had become clear—the agency’s management team wasn’t really interested in changing anything. The whole endeavor ended up feeling like a colossal waste of his time. And then he began talking to Firewood, an agency he describes as “completely different because of its supportive corporate culture.”
The lesson: What’s that old line about turning an ocean freighter? The point is it takes a while and if the ship’s captain isn’t all that interested in cranking the wheel, it’s going to take even longer. It’s even harder if you’re new to the crew. Of course, fully understanding a company’s culture when assessing a job offer is tricky business. But if you’re being hired to change that culture in a significant way, you should perhaps be extra wary and make sure that you have full buy-in about the process before signing up. Or you can find a workplace that aligns with your values and work habits, and instead of having to right a ship, you can just go with the flow.
And there you have it. So many lessons learned, all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, all the p’s minded and the q’s sent back to the quacky quagmire from which they quicken. So what mistakes have you made and how have they helped you become a better professional, friend, or person? Leave a comment and tell us about your best mistkes—err—mistakes!