Embarrassment is a powerful feeling. It creates a sense of vulnerability and exposure. For me, embarrassment typically emerges from mistakes. These small, yet meaningful failures, remind me what I still need to learn.
Early in my career I was fortunate to work with more seasoned professionals who cared as much about my personal development as they did about tangible business outcomes.
I was a project manager for a major event, which required several layers of collaboration to ensure full alignment between content development, planning, and execution. At one point, I missed a major milestone. I was faced with the hard truth–a deadline passed without my knowledge. I dropped the ball.
The committee chair, while not of my generation, exudes the passion and energy of a much younger person. It’s not quite naïveté, but they lack the cynicism that is all too common for people who believe they’ve already “seen it all.”
I remember making the phone call to explain what happened. My throat was dry and my heart sank to the bottom of my gut. My inner perfectionist scrambled to find a way to justify the error, however, I knew I needed to own up to my mistake.
As I confessed my guilt to the committee chair, their disappointment was obvious. Nonetheless, I sensed a shift in the conversation. After a series of piercing questions to better understand how I was going to salvage the situation, the committee chair paused for a moment. The tension seemed to slowly dissipate as their tone of voice changed.
The committee chair said, “Look, David, we all make mistakes. It’s going to happen again. And I appreciate your honesty.”
I wasn’t able to allow myself to feel any sense of relief, but what the person said next remains a fundamental lesson in both business and life:
“It’s not about the fall. It’s about the recovery. It’s how you rebound from this mistake that matters.”
In essence, it’s the old adage, “actions speak louder than words.” I’ve learned it’s more important to follow the “show me,” versus the “tell me” approach.
A few years later, the same person fiercely defended my reputation in a meeting. My mistake had translated into an opportunity; I earned their trust. In return, I received the wisdom to own my mistakes and take no less pride in the steps that followed a falter.