How to recover after screwing up

Head in Hands

The multi-media conference-event South by Southwest (Nicknames: SXSW, Stinky Pete to its college buddies) wrapped up this week. I didn’t go because I am on the wrong side of the planet, but I hear from my many many friends who did that it was a hootenanny. Apparently some of those friends talked about me, as people do about absent friends.

Whatever they said, I bet it was better than what people were saying about me at SXSW last year.

I swear, by all the gods and little fishes, that this is going to be the last-ish time I write about this, because it never feels less awkward to talk about. But there are still some seriously important reasons to mention it.

A tiny bit over a year ago, I wrote a post that inspired people to ask whether I had gone completely insane. (I’m not linking to it directly anymore. I understand the gnawing pain of curiosity, so if you MUST see for yourself, contact me and I will send you the link.)

This post involved accusations with naming names, violent sexual imagery, and the raging flailing parts of me that are generally locked in the basement.

This post went live a few days before SXSW.

Many months later I found out that it was definitely a topic of conversation at SXSW.

Among all the people I most wanted to impress.


This could have been Game Over.

I was new, I had very little social capital built, and it would have been oh-so-easy for this one impulsive post to land me in Stay-Away-From-Her-She’s-Craaaazy-town. I could have permanently burned my rep with lots of people. I could have slunk away and never been seen again.

But it’s a year later, and none of those things have happened. I’ve guest posted for most of the people I named and offended. I have a full-time business. And everyone has more-or-less forgotten about the incident, and are focusing on the new (and much more fascinating) screw-ups that other people are making now.

This hasn’t been my only Epic Fail in business: when you’re impulsive, creative and a tiny bit febrile they will happen from time to time. The reason I’m still here is that I know how to manage my fuck-ups.

Here’s my advice for the inevitable mistakes we all make (if we’re not playing it safe, which is a mistake in itself).

Display appropriate shame.

Appropriate shame is a psych term, feeling proportionately bad about something we’ve done.

There’s two little traps in that sentence, can you spot them?

One, quite basically, is that you have to feel you did the wrong thing. If you don’t feel you did, then say so! You aren’t a politician, you are much better off being proudly unashamed than muttering lies. You might be a monster, but at least you’ll be an ethical monster.

The other is a sense of proportion. Brushing off a serious injury is cruel; publically flagellating yourself for a casual incivility is just dumb. If your feelings are way out of whack with your screw-up, then there’s probably something else going on. You’ll need to separate it so it doesn’t make things go so very much worse.

Make your apologies at least as public as your mistake.

Recently, I realised that I had turned into a bit of a launch zombie (“Buy my thing. It’s amaaazing. Grrr. Raaaargh.”) in the wake of DIY Magnificence and I had made my last few newsletters all about me and what I wanted instead of about my readers. So my next newsletter was the logical place to apologise to them; a full-page ad in the Times would have been overkill.

Make your apologies in enough places that they’re likely to reach everyone who was affected. It’s better to do more than you have to: the temptation will be strong to whisper it down a well at midnight and call it done, but this incident won’t have a chance of quieting down until the apologies are completed.

(And don’t you DARE bad-mouth someone in public and apologise in private. Bad form!)

Own your actions.

Factually describe what you did and did not do. “I promised Angela that I would call her on Tuesday, but I didn’t get back to her until Friday. By that time, the deadline had passed and we had missed out.”

Be a reporter of your failure, not a bard: brief, factual and as unbiased as you can manage, especially in your descriptions of other people’s words and actions.

Resist every urge to prettify your words: all that does is distract people from your mistake. (Which is why it’s tempting, of course.)

Explain a little, but don’t justify yourself.

There are times when it really matters to know the whys and wherefores.

“I went to the store but they were sold out.”

“I know I said I would get that done this week, but I contracted double pnemonia and I was in hospital.”

“I was being held hostage when I wrote that.”

Add any facts that change the story, but omit any that just make you look better. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, what matters is that you insulted me in front of my friends.

Show up and take it.

Don’t go and hide until it all blows over; that pretty much guarantees it never will.

Be open and available to criticism and feedback from the people who have a right to give it (i.e. the people you messed with). Let them choose whether this occurs in public – in your comments, say – or privately.

It’s pretty hard to respond well during a hysterical crying jag, she says from experience, but do your ABSOLUTE BEST to:

  • reply evenly and respectfully
  • avoid being defensive (Delete any sentence that begins with, “Yeah, but…”)
  • not deny anyone else’s feelings – they might not make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean the other person shouldn’t feel them

It’s cool to say, “I need some time to respond to what you just said.” when you know that if you reply right now it will be a knee-jerk reaction. (As long as you actually reply when you’re ready!)

Walk away from the keyboard, or use friends as sanity filters. You want to avoid adding any more misunderstandings, oh yes you do.

Don’t feel you must own other people’s interpretations of your actions.

You’re ten minutes late, and you’re responsible for that.

If the other party thinks that you’re a sociopathic jerk-off because you’re ten minutes late, you don’t have to agree.

Everyone has their own Stuff, and you’re not responsible for anyone else’s. You can say, “I’m sorry I was ten minutes late. I don’t agree that it means I’m a worthless human being.”

There are some people who will try to heap sixteen piles of shit on you for any mistake. You are not obliged to breathe manure just because they say so.

Figure out what you’re going to do about this situation.

Sometimes the answer is, “Not one damn thing.”

If you need to fix a problem, make concrete plans to do so. Tell anyone who needs to know.

You don’t need to broadcast every step of your plan to right what you hath wronged. Often, that’s based more in the desire to make yourself feel better, and much less about cleaning up your mess.

Figure out what you’re going to do to make sure it never happens again.

There’s almost always a valuable lesson or five to be learned from any screw-up. Once everything has blown over, analyse the event dispassionately and pick out the wisdom.

Here are some of my hard-won insights:

Never send emails at 3am.

Don’t set rigid deadlines when you don’t have to.

If you swear occasionally in articles you won’t explode like that.

It’s okay to describe behaviour, but don’t name names. (Except yours.)

Accept it’s never going to entirely go away.

This is part of your history now. People have long memories and the internet has a photographic one.

There’s always going to be a small stain on you.

Get back to normal.

The best thing you can do is engage fully with the process and then act normally. (Not like it never happened. Normally.)

Keep showing up to all the places you would usually go. (Have the same awkward conversations about The Event a number of times until it gets dropped.)

Keep doing your usual great work, writing your usual fantastic articles, displaying your usual excellent manners.

On the scales of judgement, Bad Deeds weigh anywhere from ten to a hundred times as much as Good Deeds. If you keep piling on the good ones, eventually they will outweigh the bad ones.

Watch with fascination as other people fuck things up.

Because ten to one they won’t handle it as well as you will.

Want to learn more from my mistakes – and my genius, too? Sign up for Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy, and receive a free 30-minute Marketing Check-up AND the inside scoop!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex E. Proimos

How to talk about your work

Everyone needs a getaway

There are six coloured flags blowing on the beach.

The sand is white and warm, pleasant to the touch.

You’ve put your bag on one end of your towel to hold it down as the wind picks up, and your shoes at the other end.

The sky is deep and blue and cloudless, the sun is fierce. Cool and delightful the breeze off the water, messing up your hair and making your lips taste of salt.

Later we’ll eat very hot chips with tomato sauce on them, to warm us after the cold water.

There’s sand between your toes and you feel wonderfully tired.

A small child chases a seagull.

The moral of the story

When you tell me about the work that you do, make me see myself in it as clearly as you saw yourself at the beach just now.

Use photos, use tiny vignettes like the one about the beach, use video… do whatever you can to make me imagine myself having the experience of your work.

Wearing it. Running it through my hands. Hanging up after a session, shooken up and inspired. With your work as a piece of my life, sitting just over there, no not next to the potted plant, next to the bookshelf. Using your techniques in my next sales call.

If you can make me imagine your work as a reality in my life, I’m already half sold.

Here’s another example using my newest product, DIY Magnificence.

You jump with delight as you see the box sticking out of your mailbox.

Everything inside is colourful, everything is so very touchable. You shuffle the flash cards through your hands a few times, but they’re too big and there are too many to do it comfortably. You pop them back into their bag and flick over and over through the workbook. Your eyes catch a question and automatically you start to ponder it. (“What work does feel easy to me?”)

A week later, you’re sitting on the grass in the warming sun. You’ve unearthed your old stereo to listen to the Excited CD – you could have used your iPod, but the birds are singing and someone over that way is mowing and it’s just too nice a day to miss the sounds – and spending an hour or two planning your next amazing work is a thousand kinds of blessing. You’re making furious notes in your usual work notebook because the workbook feels too precious to write on just yet. You’ve made ten pages of big underlined scribbly notes already and you’re ablaze with potential and yes-ness. Many of the notes are already crossed out as you realised they weren’t your best work. Some ideas are underlined six times, with arrows and exclamation marks.

Two intense weeks later, scared and overjoyed and proud, you’re ready to make your new work a reality. Your friends say, “I don’t remember the last time I saw you so fired up!” and you reply, “I know. I’m just ready to do a lot of things I’ve been holding back on… this is going to be the best work I’ve ever created. I can’t wait to see how it goes!”

A couple of the cards have been pinned up on your corkboard. The rest are sitting in a drawer, waiting for your Next Big Thing.

Be specific, be evocative, and most of all… be concrete. Engage as many senses as you can, and enjoy the benefits. (They feel like a warm fuzzy blanket that smells faintly of lavender, tucked around your feet on a howling winter night.)

Want some advice on how to get your clients feeling down to their toes how amazing it would be to work with you? Sign up to Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy today, and we’ll talk about it in your free 30-minute Marketing Check-up!

Creative Commons License photo credit: kennymatic

Creative marketing on the crappy days

Carnaval Weert 2009

Iris was King Shrewd’s herald, and she blew the fanfare trumpet.

She wouldn’t settle for any random toot-toot, though. No, Iris’s fanfares stopped all conversation every time the king entered. (As a good fanfare should, of course.)

Iris joyfully created the king’s theme and delivered it with repeated and varied motifs. (Many many years later, a composer named Aaron Copland heard some of them and wrote Fanfare for the Common Man. It would have given the king hiccups of rage if he’d known his majestic greeting had been transposed into an ode to ordinary citizens, but luckily the king had died many years earlier from eating a renegade pear.)

For many years, Iris blasted her amazing fanfares with all of her energy and breath and innovation.

But then Iris had the flu. And she had a raging row with her boyfriend about money. Iris felt run-down, put-upon and wrung-out. Even picking up the fanfare trumpet felt like too much work. And as for blowing back the coronets with a joyous blast? Forget it.

Exhausted and anxious, Iris paced in the quiet spot behind the tapestries. (The court’s backstage area.) She wanted to do a magnificent job. She wanted to produce her usual creative and innovative amazingness. Mentally, she rehearsed… and all she could think of was a big fat raspberry. She was going to let the court down. She was going to let her king down. She was…

“What’s the matter, Iris?” said King Shrewd, with a kindly look on his face.

“Oh, your Majesty,” she wailed, “I don’t think I can produce a wonderful fanfare for you today. I’ve been trying to create something great, and it’s not working.”

“I see. Well, can you do a decent fanfare? Something from the standard book?”

“I… suppose so. But it won’t be as good as my usual work.”

“Well, we can’t be amazing every day. Remember when I invaded Ruritania? That was embarassing.”

Iris smiled weakly. “I’ll do my best, sire.”

“Good lass.”

Accordingly, Iris walked out and blew Standard Fanfare #7.

The next day, she blew Standard Fanfare #15, with a small elaboration of the final flourish.

The day after, she delivered a muted but engaging version of her standard theme.

And after that, Iris was back to her normal improvisational best. (At least until she sprained her ankle and her mum found a suspicious lump.)

The moral of the story

Generally, you know you’re doing your best work when it just flows out of you with no feeling of effort. Most times it will be easy-peasy to get that work done.

But most times is not every single day.

When you do machine work – putting blue widgets into boxes or processing insurance forms – you can get through on those days when you really aren’t feeling it. You won’t be as efficient, but Tab A will get into Slot B nonetheless.

When you do creative work, the occasional off day (or off week) is hella alarming. It’s hard to do creative work with no feeling of flow, and hard to apply ourselves to creating work we know won’t be our best. It’s so very tempting to say, “Ah, fuck it. It won’t be any good anyway, why should I even bother? I should just eat this peach ice-cream instead, recuperate, and come back at it tomorrow.”

It’s a dilemma. Do you show up uninspired and do your best today, accepting that the end result might be workmanlike and maybe unworthy… or do you do no work at all, letting your mojo return naturally but getting nothing done (and maybe letting The Resistance in through the back door)?

In regards to creative work around marketing, this is even more tricksy. There is nothing less energising and exciting than someone saying, “Hurrah. I have a thing for sale. You should check it out. It’s amazing.” It’s very tempting to pack it all in and leave the marketing for another day.

But… to be effective, marketing has to keep showing up. If you save it only for the days when you’re feeling tippy-top, then it won’t get done often. So it won’t be effective. And you’ll have yet another reason to say, “Eh, marketing sucks. I won’t bother with it.”

So there’s a strong reason to answer your emails, promote your work, talk in the forum, put up new flyers, chat on Twitter, write a newsletter, post an update… whether or not the mojo is flowing as you’d want it to.

Only you can choose.

What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments!

If you want a weekly reminder of your amazingness, with encouragement to keep marketing even on the crappy days, then sign up for Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy today.

Creative Commons License photo credit: FaceMePLS

Why your secrets don’t matter

Homemade Wheat Bread

If you traveled to a certain town in the south of France, you would know that they had only one baker.

Oh, there were plenty of people who made loaves of bread, but they were merely workmen. Standing far above them all was… Arnaud.

Arnaud! So many tales told of Arnaud! Of his incredible perfectionism – did you hear that once he threw out an apprentice for stirring a batch of dough with the wrong spoon? And then he threw out the batch of dough and started afresh?

And his secrecy! Mon dieu, no-one knows even where he buys his salt! It appears in mysterious vans in the early hours, in boxes which have been painted over! Just his salt!

For twenty years it was thus, and then the unthinkable occurred: a new artisan baker opened his doors. Ha, said the wise ones. This new shop won’t last a month.

But it lasted the month. And the next one. Any by the end of the third month, it was a raging success. People lined up outside the shop in the mornings to buy their baguettes, the same way they not-so-long-ago lined up outside Arnaud’s.

It was a sensation.

Reporters arrived, as reporters do. They interviewed a very grim Arnaud, who bit off every word and glared at the boom operator.

And then they followed the smell of delicious baking to Sebastien’s. Sebastien himself came out to meet the reporters, and escorted them in to the shop. Inside was a riot of colour on the walls, with two very large posters.

One said, “Bread brings us together. It is a feast for all the senses, and nourishes our soul as much as our body. Bread is comfort and certainty. Bread is who we are.”

The other, “Our Recipe” – the classic five-ingredient mix, with every supplier named. A receipe so simple that you could make it at home, if you were so inclined.

The reporters elbowed each other furiously in order to be the first to ask, “Why do you have your recipe on your wall? Aren’t you worried that people could just use the recipe and make the bread at home?”

Sebastien laughed. “If they wanted to make this recipe, well, it is published on more than 1200 websites. It is a classic recipe. I lose nothing by putting it up here, or by taking people through the back to show them how their bread is made.”

“But what about the mystique?”

“People are not paying me for mystique.”

“Well, what are they paying you for then?”

“Some are paying for an extra twenty-minute sleep in the morning. Some are paying for my beautifully even-cooking oven that will bake the crust exactly right. But the rest are paying for love.”

He laughed again at their bemused faces. “I love my customers, and I let them know it. It gives them pleasure – we all need to be loved, n’est-├že pas? Also, I love bread. I am passionate about it, I am determined to make it as excellent as it can possibly be. Continually, I experiment! Just last week I found that by raising the oven temperature 2 degrees I can improve the texture of the bread, to make it have just a little more of the elasticity we enjoy without becoming dry.”

“But what about Arnaud? He too is a perfectionist.”

“I must correct you: I am not a perfectionist, I am a striver for excellence. Arnaud is making bread for Arnaud; I am making it for my people. I am seeking to please them, to delight them, to make them smile. And that is what they pay me for.”

“So why do you list your recipe then?”

“Because I knew it would get you to come here to interview me.” And Sebastien laughed yet once more.

The moral of the story

Paranoia about sharing the details of how you work is a sign that you don’t think there’s anything unique or amazing about what you’re doing.

I could cheerfully tell you everything I can think of about how I help people name their amazing products and websites and such, because it doesn’t matter. There are so many factors that I bring to my work – word nerdery, empathy, humour, long years of marketing study – that you couldn’t do it in just the same way. Of course you could do it in different ways, but then you’d be offering something completely different anyway. So why should I worry?

When you create magnificent work, you create something that can be analysed but not duplicated. And, free of the fear that sharing your secrets would make you redundant, you can talk openly about your methods, ingredients, inspirations… all the kind of details that help me build trust in you.

If you want to know more about how to create magnificence, then have a look at DIY Magnificence. It’ll get your dough rising.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Emily Carlin