You, too, can screw up in front of tons of people!

We’ve talked about why you need to take risks, and we’ve gone over how you might mess up.  The next step is to convince your supervisor or funder or whoever lets you do what you do.  This is not How to Win Friends and Influence People, although that’s a great book and you should read it if you haven’t already.  This post is also not a conversation guide.  Consider this more of a list of pre-requisites for public health risk-taking.  Without further ado:

1. Establish a track record of taking responsibility.  Everyone answers to someone, and the people you answer to don’t want to get stuck taking crap for things that you did.  I am quite sure that they’re already taking crap for a lot of other things they didn’t do.  If you have a tendency to assign blame for your mistakes to other people, then no one in their right mind will let you do anything new.  If possible, attach your name to the work you produce.  That way, complaints (and any accolades) go to you.  Take responsibility for the negatives, and share credit for the positives.

The people you answer to also want to know that you follow through on the projects you start, or they’re not interested.  You may be familiar with this concept in the form of conversations you had with a parent when you were a kid, or conversations you’re having with your own kids now.  They tend to start with the kids asking for a puppy and end with the adults pointing out that they’d wind up taking care of it themselves.  Especially if the kid has a track record of goldfish neglect.  Take care of your work-goldfish or no one will let you do anything.

2. Know that you will screw up.  Possibly royally.  The thing about taking risks is that, much of the time, your screw-ups become a lot more visible.  You will be embarrassed and worry about your professional reputation.  You’ll think you looked stupid in front of a ton of people, and maybe you did.  At least it will help you develop a sense of scale for your mistakes.  Make a their/they’re error in a guest blog post* where you’re meeting a new audience for the first time?  At least you didn’t accidentally send them all a flyer of an angry possum.

Please note that this does not mean that you should be careless.  It does mean that you have to accept that even you are not perfect.  It also means that you have to learn the difference between attention to detail and crippling perfectionism.   (Perfectionism is just a fear of failure anyway, and you’re over that now, right?)

3. Own your mistakes.  Anything else looks defensive or shady.  I don’t get to blame the two people who missed the their/they’re error in that guest blog, because I’m the one who typed it.  I’m the person that got so excited about open enrollment on the Marketplace that I forgot basic English grammar.  (I really don’t know how that happened, since we’re all really anal retentive about that kind of thing.)  The point is, you’ll find that people don’t get nearly as upset about your mistakes as long as you admit to them.  If you’ve ever had any kind of relationship with other humans, you’ve probably had at least one argument centered around this idea.

4. Do what you can to make it right. If it’s a typo, fix it.  If you caused an actual problem, try to make it right with the understanding that you might not be able to fix it.  That’s slightly easier in business where you can compensate with replacement, discounted, or free products/services.  In public health, you might only be able to listen and adjust your course.  Do what you can.

5.  Rinse and repeat.  If you own your screw-ups and try to make them right, then you get to cycle back to step #1.  People will let you take more risks.  You’ll get to mess up in front of a bigger and bigger audience in bigger and bigger ways.  Congratulations!

*Don’t bother looking for it – it’s not there anymore.  I saw it within a couple hours and had it fixed immediately.


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