I’ve got one from 2008. The reason it’s stuck with me so long is because I should have known better.
It was the fourth time a senior vice president (SVP) of worldwide sales had hired me to help with his annual worldwide kickoff event. We had a great relationship. He and his entire staff made for a dream account. That is, until the company hired a director of global field communications.
The most important part of this project was creating three presentations for the SVP. Wanting to help the new director get on board, I invited her to the review sessions, even though her boss hadn’t asked her to join us. This was probably my first mistake.
As we’d go through the slides, the new director nitpicked at my work. I didn’t mind her wanting to participate. In the early stages of developing a presentation I welcome new ideas and suggestions. But her comments were about off center text boxes or the clarity of a stock photo I hadn’t yet purchased.
After weeks of this, I made mistake number two. When she pointed out a nit, I laughed and explained that this new slide was still in the conceptual phase and nowhere near final. The executive laughed too.
Fast forward to the sales event. Wanting to build a relationship with this director, who could have been a strong ally in this account, I took her to lunch. After we ate, she told me I didn’t need to bother coming to that evening’s awards presentation.
Mistake #3: Since the slides were done and there was little chance of last-minute changes, I listened to her and stayed in my hotel room, hoping to catch up on sleep. I was in my pajamas and watching TV when the SVP called to find out where I was. I told him why I wasn’t there and offered to come. He said, “That’s okay.” Mistake #4: I didn’t get dressed and run down there.
Other than that, the SVP was pleased. His presentations were well received and his people left energized for the year. But when it came time to work on his next event, he didn’t hire me. In 2009, they cut back and didn’t do a sales kickoff. Although we stayed in touch, I never worked for that exec again.
Maybe it was the economy. Or perhaps the director brought in a vendor she liked. No matter the real reason, six years after it happened, I still blamed myself.
In general I’ve improved how I deal with mistakes because of improv. I had to. Working in an art form where you don’t know what’s coming next makes mistakes inevitable. And sometimes they’re even gifts. But when they’re not, there’s a rule of thumb: You can only remain upset for the length of your performance.
Love the Lesson
Sometimes a mistake becomes a gift while you’re still on stage. Other times, the gift lasts a little longer. Messing up is how I finally learned comedy’s rule of threes.
You can see what happened in this video, where Roger and I are food shopping. We’re looking at milk and I say, “Soy?”. Responding with “I don’t speak Spanish,“ Roger gets a nice laugh. We continue to the meat case and I say, “Filet mignon?” He says, “I don’t speak French.” To complete the pattern (or in improv-speak “the game”), I needed to move on to the frozen foods and say, “Edamame?” But I didn’t. I left the audience hanging, unconsciously waiting for the magical third hit.
Savor the Story
The other long-lasting gift is the story.
One time I sang “You’re So Vain” at a karaoke bar after having a few drinks. Who knew this Carly Simon favorite was such a hard song? Even with easier ones, I often wander away from the intended notes. That night my wandering was epic. My performance was so bad that the DJ, who typically sells a CD to each singer, gave me mine for free. He said the recording had a problem.
The next day, completely sober, I listened to the CD. It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but then I realized there wasn’t a thing wrong with the recording except for my ability to stay on key. Obviously the DJ felt he was doing a charitable service hoping I’d never do karaoke again. Not wanting to belittle his charity, I complied.
(Through the miracle of being able to find everything on the Internet, here’s a link to someone else similarly challenged by this song.)
A few years later when I hosted a karaoke night for an organization, I had a great warm up story. And now I’m using it again!
Disown the Damage
Like most cultures, the improv world has a certain etiquette, which includes taking care of the people sharing the stage with you. Last fall, I was on a team where we opened our set acting like human Wikipedia entries. Someone would start and then another team member would tap the first guy out and continue from where the prior player left off.
In one show, I mispronounced or misused a word. Instead of having fun with the mistake, he made fun of my ignorance and got a laugh. It wasn’t a big deal, but it wasn’t pleasant either. However, it didn’t bother me for long because the guy who pimped me out caused the real damage, when he could have turned it into a gift.
As I thought about disowning the damage, I realized I should do that with my 2008 mistake. After all, my series of missteps were indeed stupid, but in no way unforgiveable. Things didn’t have to end the way they did. What ultimately happened was on them.
I want to be clear. I’m not advocating blaming someone else. My mistakes were mine. Your mistakes are yours. But the mistake maker is not the only one responsible for what happens next. There are many ways to handle it and sometimes other involved parties take you down a less-than-optimal path.
Clearly the consequences of mistakes are not all created equal. Some are life altering. Some cause others to look at you differently. Some change how you see yourself and behave. But no matter the impact, all mistakes have the potential for transformation.
Often the change is for the better. Other times not so much. No matter what, mistakes will happen. Since you can’t avoid them, you just have to show them who’s boss.