I remember a particular piano lesson when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. I was playing a fairly new piece I had been practicing quite diligently each day. The hard part was coming. It was a part where I kept making the mistake all week. As I was approaching the hard part, I found I was striking the keys gingerly; almost tentatively playing the chord, as if I didn’t want to hear it. Of course, there it was, the mistake I knew was coming. The wrong chord sounded angry, and I winced. My teacher noticed my reaction.
To give you an image of my piano teacher: petite in every way with long flowing gray hair, tons of jewelry, and bright red lipstick. So now picture it: she gently takes my hands from the keys and said, “Nancy, if you’re going to make a mistake, make it big and make it loud. Be proud!”
What??? My mind struggled with this one. She was saying this to me—the kid who wrote the word “discipline” 100 times after missing it in the spelling bee. Make it loud?? Be proud?? I cringed as she encouraged me to follow her lead and randomly pound out discordant combinations of notes on the keys. After doing it a couple of times, I had to admit it was kind of fun; and it did get me past the hard part in the piece, and I ended up playing it without a mistake later in the lesson. Because I made the mistake once, I kept harping on it, to the point where I was stuck and I could not advance.
I wish I could tell you that incident changed my life. While it did stay in my memory, it did not cure my perfectionistic tendencies overnight. In fact, my teacher ended up relocating to California and I started with a new teacher who was Juilliard trained, and while a they were a superior musician, they did not have the same appreciation of and enthusiasm for my errors on the keyboard.
So my quest for perfection followed me to school, where I fought for the Dean’s list and to work where I would berate myself for a less than flawless PowerPoint deck, or the draft of a one-pager, where the wording wasn’t quite right. I had a boss who joined me in this quest and didn’t take kindly to any sort of mistake.
Fast forward to present day: A kind colleague and friend reached out to me to let me know how much she appreciated one of my recent blog posts—and—that she found a few typos. I wrote back and thanked her for reading, and for reaching out, and I said something like, well, at least my typos show that I’m human too.
Whoa! Who was this person who reacted with appreciation, self-compassion and a touch of humor? No internal or external cringe. Just, “oh, ok, there were typos. Thanks for letting me know.”
To be clear, I’m not encouraging sloppy or careless work, or a cavalier attitude toward excellence. I’m going to fix the errors as soon as my web designer tells me how.
The lessons are:
- My feeling of pride for even putting out a blog overrode my feeling of shame at putting out something less than perfect. How often does the fear of being not good enough or not perfect hold you back from doing something new, being bold, speaking up, or putting yourself out there?
- I was able to laugh at myself for being human. It was not the end of the world that I had screwed something up; and that I had done so publicly. This would not have been the case a few years ago. I would have been mortified.
- I think I was able to respond gracefully to the person giving the feedback; and with compassion to myself for a minor screw-up
Back to the kid at the piano: if I had let the mistake stop me that day, I may have never mastered the piece. I might not have moved on to other, more challenging, more fulfilling music.
Leadership mistakes are no different; they just occur in a different setting. Some are private, only known to us. Some are very public. Some are big and loud, and they make a discordant sound when we make them. Because we are leaders with integrity, when they happen, we fix them. The great thing about putting ourselves out there and messing up is that people can see us for what we are: flawed humans showing up each day, giving it our best shots.
So get out there. Make your mistakes big and loud. I’ll be clapping for you.