How can I come to terms with making mistakes?
November 27, 2007 6:47 AM   Subscribe

How can I cope when I make mistakes? I'm starting to feel I'm failing in my career, and am very isolated. Warning - long.

In a way I know this is irrational. I work as a freelancer, on my own, in a field which demands a high level of accuracy. I get all my work via the internet and have rarely met my clients. In the past couple of weeks, for no good reason, I have messed up jobs for two clients, making mistakes I wouldn't usually make. Both clients have said 'that's not like you' when pointing out my bad job, and both had the means available to put my work right so no harm was ultimately done. I don't know whether they are going to continue sending me work. One is a big client, the other represents a small proportion of my workload.

But I cannot stop thinking about these episodes and I feel very anxious. It's a quiet time with work anyway, and I have the feelings rolling around my head that I might be failing, that I should find another field to work in (I am well-qualified for this one but little else) and that I'm going to become dependent on my husband. That's an issue with me anyway as we're very recently married (indeed wedding stress may have played a part in my recent work problems, though I wouldn't want to admit as much to my clients). We're thinking of having children so I would probably have to stop work for a while in any case and become dependent on his income, about which I feel profoundly ambiguous. My income fluctuates - overall I earn about 2/3 of what he does, though I have some exceptionally good months.

I don't have any colleagues I can talk to about this (my freelancer friends are effectively my competition, though I am sure they've made mistakes too) and I feel very alone. I think I behaved well enough when taking criticism from my clients (apologised profusely, thanked them for pointing out where I had slipped) but my brain is just not letting this go.

I'm not sure what I need now - suggestions as to how to gently alter my thinking patterns would be welcome. Also examples of how everyone fucks up sometimes!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a job for cognitive behavioral therapy. I have a very similar job and I do CBT to make my life easier and to get an edge over my opponents. Find a therapist in your area.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:03 AM on November 27, 2007

It was only two mistakes among how many projects?


Breathe deep and let it go. Both of these clients know you and like your work (evidenced by: 'that's not like you'). They'll continue to send you work. As soon as you get your next project, you can put this in the past, and move forward.

It's just a mistake, we all make them--I have a feeling your clients understand that. Do you really think they will take the time to find someone else when you have been their go-to-person? Over one mistake? One that did no harm? I've fucked up much worse with actual employers--done things that actually caused financial harm--and I've still stayed on board.

These things can and do happen, even the best writer/performer/carpenter/athlete/freelancer/politician/circus elephant isn't immune to the occasional mistake.
posted by dead_ at 7:03 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

From the very little we know about you from this problem it sounds as if there are issues here which exceed these two job mistakes. Those mistakes sound like small deals that were handled well, and who knows why you made them, but what's clear from your question is that you're going through a lot of changes in your life about which you feel ambivalent. That's to be expected, big changes are hard for all kinds of good reasons.

I don't usually rush in with recommendations for psychotherapy, but what you describe really does sound like a perfect example of the types of situations that many people find help with through talk therapy. You're already drawing connections between the big changes in your life, these work mistakes and your feelings about it all, and you might really benefit from finding someone to talk with about it all. A therapist of just about any stripe would be a good person to do that with. CBT is no more effective than other types of talk therapy, which all work about as well, so don't be too concerned with finding a particular type of therapist, just find someone that you feel comfortable with.

Best of luck. My email is in my profile if you'd like to discuss this any more.
posted by OmieWise at 7:12 AM on November 27, 2007

I work with really expensive artwork and the running line around here is “eventually everyone drops something priceless.” And it’s the truth. We are all human so we make errors occasionally. Over a long enough time line, a big mistake will happen, it’s inevitable. The other day an assistant dropped a 42,000usd painting and shattered its frame. Is this a good thing? No, but no amount of her feeling terrible about it was going to “un-drop” it either.
The first time I made a 50k mistake you bet I freaked out too, but I eventually realized I wouldn’t be good at what I do if I was paralyzed with fear every time I had to pick up something expensive.
Life is stressful,
You’ll make mistakes,
Learn what you can from them and move on.
posted by French Fry at 7:23 AM on November 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

I've had similar experiences as French Fry, though in my case it was data-collection software and it was just a given that you were, occasionally, no matter how hard you tried, going to screw the pooch, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. Now, in our case, we very deliberately had a chain of QA that made any uncaught mistake a number of people's problems, and that was a really good thing.

Even now, in a different field, we get customer sign-off before we call a thing done, so that if what we did doesn't produce desired results, it's not one person's problem. That's a good business practice for any consultant, so that when mistakes happen - and they will - they get caught before any real damage is done.

Maybe this is your wake-up call to change your processes a little bit. Write testing into your project plan, get the customer involved in that process, get sign-off from them in the end. I think the anxiety you are feeling is part shock and part lack of control, so applying more control to the process should help you some.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:40 AM on November 27, 2007

You don't characterize the mistakes at all, so maybe instead of focusing on the fact that you made the mistakes you could figure out why those particular mistakes happened and learn from that.
posted by rhizome at 7:45 AM on November 27, 2007

I vividly remember the time I did a > in my code when I intended a <

It lost my client VOIP revenue for a few hours (tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars) because none of the customers got billed correctly. Sure, I can say that I was sleep deprived (death march project), it was a marathon coding session, other people had screwed up since QA didn't catch it.. Whatever. At the end of the day, I wrote the code. I felt responsible and beat myself up about it - even though the client was really understanding and supportive.
Actually, that made me feel much much worse. Being yelled at would have been preferable in some ways.

My point: Yes, everyone will screw up if they haven't already. I just aim not to make the same class of mistake twice. That's about all anyone can do, really. I also subject my reaction and how I fixed the problem to intense self-analysis so I can act a little bit more gracefully the next time I screw up. Yes, there will be more times. I realize this now - although I'll do my damndest to prevent it.

At the risk of playing amateur internet psychologist, I think your ambiguity about being dependent on your husband for income is feeding your fears a little bit. It's probably adding to the pressure you feel to do the job right and retain clients. Perhaps talking with him and working on resolving those issues is a good first step?

and no, I think you shouldn't be ambiguous about depending on his income if you both want children. It's just shared responsibility. It's not like he can grow a uterus and do your job, right? *grin*
posted by geminus at 7:53 AM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Japanese have a saying: Even monkeys fall out of trees. People make mistakes. Besides, what's the worst thing that can happen? Even if the client doesn't give you any more work because of the mistake, you can always look for more clients. Happens all the time. Take a leaf from some of the therapists soliciting for clients responding helpfully to you here, for example.
posted by dydecker at 8:03 AM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sounds as though you have a lot of flexibility. Take a vacation.
posted by Coventry at 8:11 AM on November 27, 2007

My main advice would be to resist the urge to think about this as an issue about your work performance, and more as an issue about how you're dealing with things in your life. It's normal to make the kind of mistakes that you made, and as you said it hasn't affected your relationships with your clients. The fact that they were both so suprised that you made a mistake should tell you that they have come to expect a very high level of work from you.

So the mistakes you made aren't the problem, the problem is that thinking about them is making you miserable. Try to separate how you feel about your work with your plans about your work. Even if you do feel that you need to improve your work performance or you need to become more prepared for the possibility that you could be out of work at some point, you should not be doing those things because you feel anxious, you should only do them if you feel that those are rational things to do.

Your anxiety is probably not limited to just your work. Its normal to become stressed about certain things and there are ways to lessen those feelings when they start interfering with your life. In my opinion the best way to stop feeling irrationally stressed about something is to really think about why you're feeling stressed, and realize that its pointless. If your attitude is that you're afraid you're going to lose your job, the stress will feed into that. If on the other hand your attitude is that you're great at what you do and your clients are lucky to have you, it will be harder to convince yourself to worry about a few small mistakes.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:21 AM on November 27, 2007

I agree with dead_ about your clients being understanding, and that you're fortunate that it's people who know you.
I am in a similar professional position to yourself - I work from home as a translator of Chinese to English, often dealing with pretty technical content from fields I am not expert in (macro-economics, various of the social sciences and so forth). I'll still occasionally make a schoolboy error of parsing some interminable multi-clause sentence, or misread a character and be blind to having done that on later checks. If it were the first thing I'd ever done for a client they might conclude I just wasn't very good, but even then it will be set amongst a much larger piece where you patently know what you're doing and in fact have done it very well. Longer-term clients of course have a whole body of work to set it against, and I any way pick up work by word-of-mouth these days anyway. Any good working process with build in allowances for the inevitable human bit of muffing up the odd thing occasionally.
It's a case of having the correct perspective. I also find it quite a good client filter - in the long term it's better to work with reasonable people who understand you're human and appreciate what your doing and themselves have proper procedures in place to catch this kind of thing. God knows I'm often covering up the terrible writing of others with no complaint.
posted by Abiezer at 8:40 AM on November 27, 2007

“eventually everyone drops something priceless”

I bet everyone could come on here and tell you their biggest professional mistake. I could (if it didn't have so many telling details or if I had your email address). The truth is that people like accuracy and all, but I bet your clients already know that you pay attention to quality and detail. Consider this: if you really freaked out about achieving perfection, a) your work would slow down, and b) you'd be super-nervous and annoying to deal with. (!!) Point being, life is a balance, you can't go to the 99th percentile in one area without losing something from another area.

My best tricks for work anxiety: "my cat doesn't care"; "I was nine and one day I'll be sixty no matter what happens with this project" (point being, your core self will go on); drinking chamomile tea; trying to laugh at a picture of myself all worried; picturing the worst case scenario ever ("I still have a tent and camping stove so even if I couldn't pay rent...").
posted by salvia at 8:51 AM on November 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

Also, about the "am very isolated" -- can you un-isolate yourself? Even with people outside of your field? People who will remind you that your value has little to do with whether or not you put the comma in the wrong place.
posted by salvia at 8:55 AM on November 27, 2007

given the additional stress of a recent marriage and a near-future pregnancy, it sounds possible that your thoughts, while focused on work, may be fueled by generalized anxiety, which can be very difficult to address alone.

telling yourself perspectivizing mantras may help, as might regular exercise and an adjustment to your work routine. but if you truly feel alone with no one to talk to, a decent therapist can be very helpful.

cognitive behavioral therapy especially can be very helpful in curbing obsessive thoughts. it can be very practical, goal-oriented, and short-term, which is good for those people who tend to think of therapy as a vague new-agey conversation with no benchmarks for progress.

but seconding omiewise, it seems like more important than CBT is just finding someone who will listen, patiently and without judgement. if there are no friends or family who fit the bill here, consider a therapist.
posted by blapst at 9:16 AM on November 27, 2007

I've gone through many ebbs and flows in my career, especially around big events like marriage and having a kid. When I've messed up (and I've messed up big ... brought down an entire agency's mail server) I fretted for days because my mistake was so stupid and easily avoided. The things that ate at me were not living up to my own expectations, letting my colleagues down, and worrying that my previously great record would be all for naught after this mistake. I proceeded with caution and it took time to rebuild my confidence but it does comes back.

People understand that these things sometimes happen and while it can be a setback, it can also be a great reminder for improving personal performance. I've never brought down a mail server again and I've had some great successes since then, but I've also gone on to make other stupid mistakes. Sometimes I kick patootie on a project and feel great, other times not so much.

If therapy seems like too much of a time and money commitment then maybe some time out with your friends or family (who aren't your competition) to chat about marriage/family/work might help. And please feel free to drop me an email if you want to talk some more.
posted by hoppytoad at 9:23 AM on November 27, 2007

I've made glaring PUBLIC (I'm a performer) work mistakes on very fragile jobs - I work hard at being thorough, conscientious, and prepared, and when the inevitable happens and you make a mistake - well, it's a horrendous feeling. But in talking to MANY people about it (the people who witnessed it, other colleagues, etc), I saw that everyone has a similar war-story. You ain't alone, not by a long-shot. Try really hard to not make the mistake while realizing that you, my monkey-friend, WILL fall out of a tree. It's alright - happens to us all.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:24 AM on November 27, 2007

When I was first starting out in graphic design, as a freelancer, I used to screw up projects ALL the time. I can think of many examples, and it was horrible because I also wasn't very good at my job, as I was still learning.

Now I have experience, and I STILL screw up projects every so often, but because I've been doing this so long, I realize I don't have to bury my head in shame over my fuckups. What helps is thinking of how my ability and experience is more salient in others' minds than the moment that is on repeat in mine — just last week I was freelancing at a place and I accidentally threw away some documents that I thought were mine. I reversed the situation, but not after wasting 10 minutes of my superior's time. Later that day, she came up to me to let me know what a great job I've been doing and how all the other's around there like working with me. I thought in my head, "seriously?!", but realized that the one thing out of 100 wasn't important to her. She'd already forgotten it, as should I.

But, if it makes you feel better to hear some misery, here's a short list of the atrocities I've brought upon myself, and survived:
• I crashed a car on a test drive. The seller was an insurance lawyer.
• I accidentally spilled wine across a display of mockup bottles that I had spent all night working on, for a presentation the next morning.
• I fell down a flight of stairs when going to meet my boyfriend's grandparents for the first time. I landed on the family dog.
• I have a wicked amount of electrostatic energy and am CONSTANTLY breaking/freezing/destroying other people's computers, iPods, phones, etc.

That should do for now. Feel better?
posted by iamkimiam at 9:33 AM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I once completely ruined an elaborate surprise party by walking through the door first, before this "stranger" that I thought was odd to even be there.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:34 AM on November 27, 2007

I don't really believe in the "you're only as good as your last project" theory. I think that all the successful projects you've completed for your clients in the past will outshine one or two mistakes, and that your client will be more understanding than you are. If you're like me, you expect perfection from yourself (especially after a long run without mistakes). Perfection doesn't happen. Making sure your clients are pleased with your work does happen, regardless of whether fixed a mistake to make it work or if your work was flawless from the get-go. Just remember that this is normal, and handle any mistakes the same way you already have: with grace, humility and a complete willingness to fix the problem right away.

Give yourself room to be human, remind yourself of what you've already completed with no problems and double-check your work if you're concerned about mistakes. Take more notes, review them one more time than you normally would and if both of these mistakes were in one particular area, try and remind yourself to take a break and then take another look for problems. I find that I make mistakes when I feel that everything is going well, and I jump from one project to the next. If I take one more minute to look things over before I submit it to my clients, I catch the mistakes that both me and my boss make. [As for me, I work in the talent industry and I'm responsible for booking, sales, accounting and taxes. I'm on call 24/7 for my boss, clients and vendors, no matter what. I definitely make mistakes, just like my boss, my clients and my talent. It's very normal, even for perfectionists.

Regarding the anxiety, you need to find someone who can listen to you, understand and relate. Whether it's your husband, a friend, a neighbor or a family member, it sounds like you just need to talk to someone to make sure you're not the only one going through things like this.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 11:26 AM on November 27, 2007

dude, i totally know how you feel. i may have even posted this question.

you have anxiety. end of story. do you need a therapist? ehn.

a therapist will tell you what everyone else has: everyone makes mistakes.

if you dwell on it, you'll just make more mistakes in the future. decide to prove it to yourself and your clients that it was a fluke, and do better next time.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:26 PM on November 27, 2007

You mentioned that your freelancer friends are basically your competition. That may or may not be true - I certainly know of a few networks of friends who all do the same kind of freelance work, and a lot of work gets passed from one to another because they trust each other not to throw each other under the bus. For example, friend A has her workload 90% full, and then a 10 hour a week project is offered to her. Friend A passes that project along to friend B understanding that the favor would be returned.

I bring this up because when this kind of thing - failure, slow times, mistakes - does happen, it's really important to have a social support network, someone you can bounce your frustrations and insecurities off so that you can recalibrate your feelings away from self-flagellation and into a more realistic and positive outlook. Real friends will help you with this, and my guess is that you probably have some.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:31 PM on November 27, 2007

A few thoughts.

Significant transitions - whether positive or negative - are major stress-producers. Marriage, having kids, moving, buying a house, a death in the family.

So you have a major stress going on, you not surprisingly make a couple of slips in your work, and it rationally (if not necessarily realistically) puts you in mind of upcoming potential major stresses - having children and potentially becoming more financially dependent on your spouse.

Some persistent anxiety doesn't seem all that unusual, does it?

See if you can stop facing this as one big ball of wax, because it looks to me like several discrete problems that all happen to be pushing the same brain-buttons.

Anything you can do to combat stress. Exercise, sleep, improve diet, minimize intoxicants and stimulants. A little progressive relaxation never hurt anyone.

Work concerns: probably only time and success will really put this to rest. Being extra careful and buckling down and doing anything you might be avoiding (i.e. seeking new clients, following up with old ones) will probably help.

Isolation: do you need to talk to people in the same field about this? Are you talking to your husband, your family, your friends about it?

Children: maybe you are feeling rushed to have kids but you're not ready yet? Or is it mainly about depending on your spouse's income? I get this - I elected to stay at home with my son, it's been 3 years now. I make about 1/10th what I did working very part time from home - about 1/20th what my wife makes (figure out why my wife was the one who kept working, math geniuses). It affects me. Sometimes I feel really restricted in this homemaker role. But I don't feel "dependent" on my wife's income: it's all our income, and it is in service of the family. And there are different options. Are you talking to your husband about this? If you don't feel like you can, or if he is unreceptive/dismissive to your having misgivings about quitting work to be an at-home mother, then that is a problem that needs separate attention. Finally, as my case illustrates, you don't need to quit working entirely even if you are a full time parent. In any event, no matter what it's tough to transition out of the majority of one of your marriage's incomes just when you acquire a major new expense. It is a transition that needs to have a foundation of communication.

I've made a couple of insanely dumb work-related mistakes in my day that would sincerely blow your mind, but I, ah, really don't need that on the permanent record, you know? Just trust me, they were about a million times worse than whatever you did, and I can still earn an livable income. Felons and embezzlers and people who expose themselves to their coworkers manage to get back on the horse. You'll be fine.
posted by nanojath at 2:11 PM on November 27, 2007

You should know that your story sounds familiar to everyone who is reading this. It is a universal experience for anyone with a career. So why do some people seem to have no problems at work? Because of their attitudes perhaps. But there are also a great amount of people who do not want anyone else to know about their failures. Why advertise your mistakes? No matter, I still feel like crap when I mess up at work, and usually no amount of advice can help. Maybe..just maybe you will find comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Best of luck!
posted by boots77 at 8:10 PM on November 27, 2007

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