Few things frustrate us more than making mistakes, especially big mistakes. They not only point out our own fallibility, they also remind us to slow down and pay attention to the details of what we do. To be sure, there is a distinction between culpability for one’s own actions and an unpreventable error resulting from circumstance, and the space between the two is often difficult to measure. Yet, we know when we have failed through our own folly.
Recently, I led the charge by insulting an important partner and embarrassing myself, proving that I’m failing at infallibility. Not as attentive as I should have been to the bulk of e-mail and other communications that shower me each day, I misinterpreted an important message and took action without confirming the veracity of my understanding. Ultimately, I ended up embarrassing the truly good person while at the same time making an ass of myself. Kudos for multitasking!
By the time the error was discovered, harm had been caused and the opportunity to fix the transgression had passed. Certainly, the victim of my actions was magnanimous and thoughtful (in a way that I’m not sure I would have been mature enough to be), but the frustration over the error hangs with me. How many mistakes do we make that go unrecognized? How many opportunities do we miss to do the right thing? How many people are harmed in silence?
Many of us glide through life with rare repercussions for our own errors. We are insulated from failure by either previous success or personal advantage. Yet so many, unsheltered by accumulated goodwill, live in peril of a single transgression. When we imagine ourselves to rarely stumble with a gaffe, is it more likely that we seldom are held to account for our actions?