Thursday, February 12, 2015

Spilling the Milk and Other Metaphors for Messing Up, by Marti Fuerst

Photo by Lisa Brewster, used under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

At some point in your career, you’re going to screw up. You’re going to drop the ball. At some point, this screwed-up-ball-dropping is going to happen right before you leave for vacation, are sick, or for some other reason are unavailable to immediately fix it.

For instance, say you didn’t record some statistics for a report. It happens. Other things cloud your vision, like answering patron questions, or trying to get one more cart of discards done so you can claim the newly available real estate on the volunteer deprocessing shelves before someone else does, or scrambling to get things ready for the seasonal reading program that starts tomorrow, ordering the patron requests in Overdrive, or even managing your to-do list for the next week you’re back. With all the balls you’re juggling, you forget one. It drops. It doesn’t get done.

You get an email at home from your boss. The boss is, understandably, upset and disappointed with you. You apologize profusely. You too are upset and disappointed with yourself. If you have a small midwestern-town-style upbringing like me, the fact that your boss is upset and disappointed is actually more devastating than the screw-up.

Then you move to the next phase. You try to mitigate some of the guilt. Yes, you should have done the thing. You should not have dropped the ball - but there were procedures that outline how to do the thing so that anyone can do it. They were written so that if the “regular person who does the thing” was unavailable to do the thing, the thing would be done. You still should have done the thing. This mitigation doesn’t really work to ease the guilt weighing on you. Neither does the reply to your email from your boss expressing disbelief that you forgot to do the thing. I know, Boss. I can’t believe I forgot it either.

So where do you go from here?

One screw up isn’t going to land you a bad reference when you move from this library to another one. It hardly outweighs all the awesome things you have done. Yes, it feels like a monumental failure now because it is staring you straight in the face. When you get back to work, you’ll do the thing. The statistics will get recorded within the first hour that you’re back. It will get reported next month. It’s not that big a deal. Yes, you embarrassed yourself, your department, and your boss. The world didn’t end. The doors still opened and people still got access to the materials and services the organization provides. Everyone got a bit of egg on their face, but people are not dry-clean only.

There is a placard I have seen that is intended to be humorous: To err is human - to forgive is not library policy. It is funny in a bun-headed throwback or Conan the Librarian kind of way, but not very conducive to building rapport with patrons or a cooperative, trusting, team-centered workplace. Am I reading too much into a placard? Probably. Should people be held responsible for their mistakes? Of course. My point is not to dwell and stew on it, whether you have to wait a day before you can do anything productive to fix it, or you can fix it as soon as it is discovered. Forgiving yourself won’t go against library policy.

It will be okay.

Depending on the mistake, you can analyze it and make changes to your workflow, habits, etc. to try to ensure it won’t happen again. It’s likely that you will never, ever make this mistake again. That ball, of all the balls you’re juggling, will never touch the ground.

But another one might. In fact, another one probably will.

Marti Fuerst is currently a Librarian at Large as she relocates to Omaha, Nebraska. She is into emerging technologies, board games, zombies, and medieval history. She’s screwed up before, but she dusted herself off, popped a chocolate truffle in her mouth, and soldiered on. She tweets at ZealofZebra, blogs at Biblionalia, and posts library stuff to Google+, and has her portfolio at

1 comment:

  1. Along these lines, I highly recommend the book Mistakes I Made at Work, edited by Jessica Bacal. Its 25 essays offer 25 different (female) perspectives on the topic; pretty much any reader is sure to relate to one, if not many!