You’re just back from a restful vacation. You settle in behind your desk, open the first file in the towering pile and discover to your horror that a crucial deadline passed unnoticed while you were gone. The problem appears fatal, final and unfixable.
Thank goodness for Lawyers Mutual.
You pick up the phone and call the 800 number. The claims lawyer who answers is calm and reassuring. You are told to send them a copy of the file and they will take over from there. That is exactly what you want to hear. You don’t want to come anywhere near that hot mess again. You don’t even want to think about it.
But you need to do just that. You need to think about it – and learn from it. You need to mine your mistake for gold nuggets that will make you a wiser, more prosperous professional.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull Comes Crashing to Earth
There are no mistakes – there are only learning opportunities.
Don’t you hate it when people say that? So glib and preachy. It’s refrigerator-magnet wisdom.
It’s also true. Without an occasional misstep, misfire or miscalculation, nothing changes. And without change there is no progress.
Here is how Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, puts it: “There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they're necessary to reach the places we've chosen to go.”
Bach wrote those words decades before he made a whopper of a mistake in 2012 that nearly killed him.
Piloting his seaplane off the coast of Washington state, Bach was descending for a landing when he forgot to look out for a string of power lines that he had been warned about. His blades clipped the lines and his plane went down. He suffered massive injuries and was in a coma for a week.
After waking up from this nightmare, Bach was naturally filled with bitterness, depression and self-recrimination, right?
Wrong. He called the experience a blessing. He says it gave him new priorities and fresh insights, which he shares in his latest book: “Illusions II: The Adventures of a Reluctant Student.”
The word “student” in the title is apt. Bach viewed his near-death experience as a teachable moment that reminded him that he was human, fallible and forever learning.
We lawyers can train ourselves to see our errors in the same light through a four-step process.
1. Stop Trying to Be Perfect
Perfectionism is a curse of our profession. We feel a need to have all the answers. We can’t stand the thought of being wrong or messing up. This attitude usually begins at an early age, accelerates in Contracts I and picks up steam when we enter practice.
But new research indicates that perfectionism is self-defeating. It leads to bad consequences including increased stress and diminished performance. So lighten up. Cut yourself some slack. Remember: the road to success is paved with failures.
2. Acknowledge Your Error
Don’t waste time being defensive, blaming others or beating yourself up. This will only sap energy needed to fix the problem.
The goal is growth, not infallibility. As Darwin observed, when a mistake is brought to light “one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”
3. Rewind The Tape
Work backwards. Play the role of investigative journalist or police detective. Try to determine when and why the wheels came off.
Perhaps the problem was a systems failure. Your conflicts system doesn’t work. Your calendaring program is out of date.
“System changes have created positive results everywhere from the aviation industry to the medical field,” writes Margarita Tartakovsky in Psych Central. “For instance, implementing simple checklists along with instituting feedback and cultivating a culture of collaboration has saved lives, reducing medical mistakes at hospitals around the world.”
At this evaluation stage, an outside perspective – say, from your friendly neighborhood malpractice claims attorney – can be invaluable.
4. Let It Go
Figure out what happened, fix the problem and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Then move on. Don’t stay mired in the muck of a mistake.
Remember that a mistake doesn’t mean you are a bad person or a bad lawyer. It means you are human.
“If we see mistakes as bad we tend to feel inadequate and discouraged and may become defensive, evasive, judgmental, or critical of ourselves or others,” writes Jane Nelsen in Positive Discipline. “On the other hand, when mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, recognizing them will seem like an exciting venture - I wonder what I will learn from this one?”
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.