Benefit from Your Own Screwup
How can you benefit from your own screw-ups? So, I got a story. This is Mount Saint Helen's, and this show's you how old I am. Back when it first started puffing, hadn't really thought anything, for like centuries or thousands of years. All of a sudden it started emitting this kind of gas, and this is after it blew up, obviously. The top of the mountain's missing. But at the time it was, do you remember this? You guys are in the Pacific Northwest. It was a mountain, you know? Uh, so it started puffing . I am, I got the job as an environmental editor in Washington. And it was like my first or second week on the job, it was brand new. And this thing started puffing and I was writing the news section. It was my job, writing the news section at the beginning of this magazine. So I wrote this, I really worked hard. I called people, I talked to scientists, like what does this really mean. And I wrote about how this mountain in Oregon was starting to puff and maybe actually will erupt. I wrot...
e my very best story. And it was the first story I ever wrote to actually have my name at the end of it, even though it was like one, two paragraphs long. I was so proud, I sent it to my mother. So the thing prints and a week or two later, we get a letter to the editor. It comes in an envelope, paper envelope, with the seal of the governor of the state of Washington. And Governor Dixy Lee Ray wrote to the editor and it came to me, I don't know why. Maybe it was addressed to me 'cause my name was on it, asking for her volcano back. I had put Mount Saint Helen's in the wrong state. My very first signed story. So you can imagine how I felt (chuckling). I was like barely out of college. I, you know, and here I had done, like I took an entire volcano and put it in the wrong place, so. And the person who fact checked me was the governor of the state of New Ham, of Washington, so I thought, okay, what am I gonna do here. First maybe I should rewrite my resume, and start applying. First I need to get my heart rate down. And then I thought I gotta tell my boss. But I can't just go in and say to my boss, hey, by the way, I just put the mountain in the wrong place. I had to have some solution, right? I had to have a plan of some sort. So I thought, like frantically, what I was gonna do. I walk in the office and I say, boss, I just did something really terrible. And I feel awful about it. I have wanted this job so badly, and I've worked really hard, and I really sort of consider myself a journalist who's interested only in the facts. But, I put Mount Saint Helen's in the wrong state. But then I started talking really quickly and I said, but here's what I'd like to do. I wanna be able to get a really nice miniature volcano and fly to Olympia, Washington and present it to the governor. And maybe we can get some publicity out of this. Because it's really, in a way you could say that practically, that mountain practically was in the state of Oregon, it's really close to the border. And so he said, he just shakes his head and says, "Your screw-up is not getting you a ticket to "Washington where you get to meet the governor. "It's not gonna work like that." But he said, "I'll tell you what, "why don't you buy the stupid volcano "and mail it to her, "along with a letter of apology "and we'll see what happens. "And we'll, and write a really good correction." So I did all that. Like a week later, two weeks, whatever, however the mail works. Back comes this picture signed by Dixy Lee Ray, the governor, holding up the volcano and the cover of our magazine. So when the volcano actually erupted after that, my boss sent me to cover this team of scientists who were gonna start studying immediately after the eruption how the volcano is gonna recover and it was something I got to do over a two year period. And I wrote a series of stories and it made my career as a writer and editor. Okay, so let's talk about what happened here. I didn't know anything about rhetoric. I just stumbled into doing the right things. Not all the right things, so and you can do better. Let's talk about how to screw up. The first thing you wanna do, and I did this right, is be first with the news. I did (laughing), I wasn't the very first. Obviously some people in the state of Washington knew that I'd screwed up even before I did. But as soon as I learned, I was the one to present the news. And one of the biggest mistakes people make in politics, and in business, is they let the news come out by other people. You want to be able to frame the issue with presenting the news on your own. Okay? You're telling it in your own language. You're not downplaying it, you are saying, giving the facts as they exist. And you're not, you're not gonna use any kind of euphemism or anything. I screwed up is probably your best language. So you own it. You did it. Okay? You're in the past tense. Own it. Before you walk in, though, have a plan. Now what am I doing here, rhetorically? I'm gonna be the first to start talking in the past tense, and then I'm going to be ready with the future tense. But at the same time, I'm gonna be talking in the present tense, a little bit about values. Remember the present tense is rhetoric about values? So I'm not gonna say, I know how awful you feel about this, boss. I know this is a really embarrassing thing to you. It's almost the equivalent of saying, I'm sorry you feel that way. Which is the ultimate non-apology. Right? Or, you know, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. Another non-apology, essentially. Saying "I'm sorry" is never enough. You know that, right? When you say "I'm sorry" it almost never works. You can't be sorry enough. I'm gonna explain why in just a little bit, rhetorically. But you don't express the other person's feelings. You express your own feelings. And what are your feelings? You feel bad. You feel bad, why? You feel bad because you violated your own high standards. So what are you doing? You are reminding people of your own high standards. So in other words, your screw-up an opportunity to show what high standards you have. Okay? So you feel bad about this but this makes you all the more passionate, more determined to hold to your own high standards. Alright, so, you're ready with the news, past tense. You're coming with a plan, you're gonna give it in a bit. But the reason why I put that second is that you better, you're not gonna make it up as you go. You're gonna do this in advance. But then in the conversation you start with the past tense saying, "I screwed up. "Here's what I did. "Here's precisely what I did, "I'm not gonna downplay this. "I feel really bad because I really feel strongly "that this is the kind of person I am. "I'm a journalist. "I'm big with the facts. "I have worked really hard to "get the facts right. "I temporarily lapsed from these high standards. "That makes me all the more determined "to recommit myself to these standards. "So here's the plan. "And here is how I'm gonna keep it "from happening again, "if I can." This is the screw-up method. Okay, how does this work and why? One of the problems with apologies is this, when you apologize you are shrinking yourself. You are making yourself smaller. And what happens is when people are angry with you, they want you to shrink to their level and smaller as much as possible. And in some cultures people actually make themselves smaller when they apologize. They are actually shrinking. They're saying I'm less now. And that makes people feel better because it makes them more powerful and helps put them in a cognitive ease. Problem is you also need to have a solution to get past that. And if you're too small and you're powerless, people aren't going to believe your solution. You have to show some confidence in your solution. So it's okay to say you're sorry. People will expect those words. But that is not entirely even relevant to solving the problem. You are saying you're, you're not so much sorry as you feel terrible. Because if you simply say I apologize because I acknowledge your feelings, go ahead and honor those feelings. But you're gonna talk right away about how bad you feel. 'Cause this is my screw-up, I'm owning this and I feel awful about it because I have these high standards. See what I'm doing here? This is not an apology. This is a fix. This is at the same time, showing how important you think this issue is. So you're acknowledging how people feel simply by reframing it as an issue that can be solved. Not what a bad person you are, not what your relationship is with the other person, simply here's how we're gonna solve it. So let's talk about some specifics here. Do we have time for this? Okay, so, you know, classically, you leave the toilet seat up if you're a man. And you do it again and again and finally your beloved partner says to you, "This is so thoughtless of you. "You did it again!" You say, phffft. I try, you know, I try so hard to have these good habits and I get distracted. I am really committed to making myself less distracted in the future, so here's what we're gonna do. I'm gonna just temporarily put up a Post-It note saying "Put the toilet seat down, idiot!" And the word idiot means it's just for me. Okay, so, I'm not sure this will work but I'm gonna do the best I can. Because I really wanted this to work. I understand that this is something I ought to do as a member of this family, or whatever you wanna say. So basically what you're saying is, yes, I screwed up, I'm owning it, I'm not first with the mood news 'cause unfortunately the other person was. But I am recommitting to my high standards as a spouse or per a member of the family. And I have a solution and I'm gonna commit to that. I'm pivoting to the future. Here's how I'm gonna try to keep this from happening again.