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

26 thoughts on “How to recover after screwing up

  1. The Event resulted in me being friends with you. However there are other Events that have led to falling outs. It all depends on communication and acknowledgement, IMHO.

      1. Catherine,

        EVERYONE should read this post after they’ve ROYALLY screwed up something – jobs, relationships, cooking disasters, etc. What this post does is make you THINK through your Screw Up and ask “WHY did it happen?” I especially agree with you on “Don’t send emails at 3 a.m. – I’m a morning person, so, that early, I’m definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed and I’m know I’m usually prone to make AT LEAST several mistakes. But what REALLY rocked my world, was when you said “Don’t feel you must own other people’s interpretations of your actions.” It was an extremely liberating statement, and I’ll remember to say, “I disagree!” the next time someone sticks a Perception Label on one of my Actions!

        1. Excellent, Timothy.

          When you’re feeling crappy about something bad you did, it’s easy to accept other people’s bad opinions of you. But it doesn’t mean they’re right!

  2. This is getting bookmarked. I’m sure I’ll have to use it sooner or later, especially as I talk about feminism and religion most of the time. I’m sure there will be screw-ups. Thanks for all the good advice.

  3. That screw up in public/apologize in public thing is more important than it appears at first glance! A great article – hopefully I won’t get a chance to use it, but inevitably I will.

  4. okay…below this is the actual comment. first, i wanted to explain what just happened. i am ill….bed-ridden with cold, loopy from tylenol pm. for whatever reason Disques in all it’s infinite glory decided that i shouldn’t be allowed to comment from my mobile phone, where i read this, comfortable in my bed. so, my sick, loopy butt just traveled ALL THE WAY DOWNSTAIRS just to rewrite the below comment. i hope you like it. πŸ˜‰

    I am so new to the game that I have no reserves of social currency to go bankrupt on yet….but I appreciate this post.
    It will serve as a “try not to ever put yourself in this situation” kind of guide for me.
    You’re moving into the ranks of my favorite bloggers. Keep up the good work, and when I take over the world you’ll get an honorable mention.

    1. You poor darling! And thank you for the best compliment to my writing I may have ever received. πŸ™‚

      It DOES work as a preventative. It also stops teeny errors from blowing out into GIGANTIC SUCK-HOLES OF ARGHH.

      And when *I* take over the world, you will be a favoured minion. πŸ™‚

  5. If you gon’ fuck up, may as well do it right. I’ve done my fair share of fucking up, both privately and publicly. One nasty mistake — well, I maintain that speaking my mind wasn’t a mistake — cost me a rather cushy programming job a few years back.

    Best thing I did was fess up and OWN IT. Yeah, I screw up. I’m human. I’m not perfect. I’m going to continue to fuck up. Come for the ride or don’t. At least it’ll be funny when I fall flat on my face. Again. Mostly. XD

  6. Wow. Feel free to email me the said Removed Post.

    In other words, a “REAL” apology is believable. <–was me trying to take this on.

    My kids are raised to know that everybody screws up. Even me. Even mommy. And the only way out is to say "I didn't do well enough."

    Saying "I'm sorry," is a problem for us – because "sorry" is a state of being. I AM SORRY is not an incantation I want for my kids.

    It's not that we are broken, or that the fuck-up is unpredictable. That's normal.

    Being "sorry" is when you don't own your mistakes and then life is this big damned mystery.

  7. This is spot-on. A world of “yes!”

    In fact, we were talking about how the blog-o-sphere needed THIS VERY POST at this year’s SXSW. Not because of you, but in general. Very very good stuff, Catherine. Thank you.

      1. I have not heard any gossip, which I’m sort of grateful for. I like being comfortably out of the loop. πŸ™‚

  8. If there is only one completely golden piece of advice here (and there is so much more than one) it’s: “Never send emails at 3am.” Enough said.

  9. Sorry we missed you in Austin. πŸ™‚

    I have a feeling that as we slide into a world with absolutely no privacy, where scary/inappropriate pictures of all of us must inevitably appear on Facebook, that we may finally start to realize that everyone does dumb stuff, everyone does things we shouldn’t do, everyone has some glorious episode of Fail, and that’s just how it is.

    It’s like we all moved to a town of 300 people and now we can’t move out again. But the good thing about everyone’s embarrassments being visible is that it makes grand acts of foolishness seem not so mysterious.

    1. Yes! We are all dumbasses sometimes.

      (I want REM to record that song now. “Everyyyyyboooody fails… soommmmetimes.”)

      A lot of the time, how you recover is much more important than what you did in the first place. And since we can’t totally prevent ourselves from Epic Failure, we better get good at Epic Apology.

  10. Two things that I am saying hell yes to, from personal experience:

    1. Never write emails at 3 AM (See also: never write emails when sleep deprived, suffering from low-blood sugar, or pissed off about something else.)

    2. It is hard to respond with composure when sobbing your heart out (See also: WALK AWAY, MICHELLE, WALK AWAY!…for a while, at least)

    I’m totally going to bookmark this so that I can come back to it later.

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