Owning Our Mistakes

Nate Kreuter writes that the best thing you can do when you mess up is to admit it and ask for help.

May 15, 2013

Some of the columns that I write here at Inside Higher Ed arise from a really basic formula. It goes something like this: I make a mistake at work. I realize my error, or am compelled by another party to realize it, and I take corrective action. Then I write a column addressing the mistake in general terms, in hopes of perhaps removing a little of the trial and error from this whole higher education gig for a reader or two. Somewhat less frequently I simply observe the mistake of another and then write a column. I probably couldn’t keep up with this column without the steady stream of mistakes I make myself. Maybe my mistakes are job security of a strange sort.

I probably could even use this venue to make a public promise regarding my mistakes to my colleagues in my department, college, university, and across my discipline. Here goes: I promise you all that I’ll screw up again one day. I don’t know exactly how and I don’t know exactly when, but I promise to bungle something. Maybe just in a small way. Maybe in a big way. Who knows?

But here’s what I also promise: I promise to own up to whatever mistakes I make as soon as I recognize them, to do everything in my power to correct them, and to do my damnedest not to repeat them. This is, I think and I hope, what it means to be a good colleague. I certainly would not ask a colleague for more, but I also expect no less.

If to err is human, then 'fessing up is humane. Humane for ourselves and humane for our fellows.

Nothing compounds a mistake like digging in one’s heels and self-righteously insisting that we were never wrong; never goofed up in the first place. While mistakes may wound those around us, hopefully only metaphorically speaking here, then failing to admit and correct our mistakes spreads tendrils of gangrenous infection out amongst our colleagues.

I moonlight as a high school wrestling referee and a collegiate lacrosse referee. Anyone who’s ever watched sports knows that, even at the highest levels, referees make mistakes. I’ve found that nothing in all my years of officiating has ever increased my credibility with coaches more than owning up to mistakes. Unlike pro sports, with multiple TV camera angles and instant replay, in the amateur sports world no such safety net exists, and high-stakes moments hinge on the calls officials make, or don’t make, in one or two heartbeats. Sometimes a referee blows a call. Experienced coaches know that it’s unrealistic for a referee to be perfect for the duration of an entire contest, and they tend to respect officials who can own up to a mistake. Under the right circumstances, which one has to develop a feel for, admitting a mistake indicates that you’re aware of yourself and your performance, that the error was not intentional or malicious, and that you’re probably less likely to repeat it. Hopefully by being honest and humble about the small mistakes we make, we avoid large, calamitous mistakes. That’s certainly a common philosophy when it comes to sports officiating.

And I think the respect we get from owning up to a mistake extends into virtually every professional environment. But if I can’t convince you that owning up to mistakes when we make them is part of what it means to be a good colleague, at least consider that when we own up to a mistake we begin to deflate its power to haunt us and our careers and our professional relationships. If you 'fess up to a mistake, take corrective action, and don’t make a habit of repeating it, it becomes much more difficult for a colleague to hold the mistake against you.

The same is true in interactions with our students, who are colleagues of a different sort. Sometimes we make mistakes with a class or an individual student. Admitting the mistake in the appropriate venue tends to increase students’ respect for an instructor, whereas failing to acknowledge or denying an obvious mistake breeds resentment.

Of course, some mistakes are more serious than others, and I’m not talking here about the sorts of grave mistakes that lead to things like the termination of a contract. I’m talking about the day-in, day-out mistakes that are inevitable when lots of people are working in large organizations, where miscommunication is an omnipresent possibility, and when the increasing professional demands placed upon virtually everybody working in higher education pull us each in a lot of different directions. I’m talking here about about the routine and growing-pains sorts of mistakes that grad students make en route to becoming assistant professors, that assistant professors make en route to becoming associate professors, and that, well, you get the idea. With new roles and responsibilities come new mistakes. With bad days and weeks come different mistakes.

Did you unintentionally come across as aggressive or dismissive with a colleague during a disagreement at a department meeting? Swing by the colleague’s office, apologize, and make sure your overexcited tone during one meeting doesn’t instigate an enduring rift. Did you fail to return assignments to students when you had promised? Own up to it, not with an excuse necessarily, but with an acknowledgment of the broken agreement, and a plan to make amends if appropriate. Like us, students see right through BS excuses. Also like us, they tend to respect those who take responsibility for their actions or inactions. (Of course, I’m assuming good will here — if you’re just a jerk who always yells at colleagues during meetings, or who never returns assignments to students when promised, those are different issues.)

We all might make fewer mistakes at work in the first place, or at least cause ourselves fewer problems, if we learn to ask for help. I think that the culture of academe subtly trains us not to ask for help when we need it. I think a common latent fear circulates in academe, wherein many of us are afraid that asking for help with a scholarly dilemma, a teaching dilemma, or any dilemma will signal an inadequacy to our colleagues. Perhaps this is a symptom of the multiyear tryout of attempting to win tenure, or the constant pressure of working in year-to-year contracts, as most adjuncts do. Ours is also a very individually oriented world. We are responsible for a lot of self-starting and self-supervising, and the tenure and promotion process reinforces our tendency in American culture towards intense individualism. These forces, along with a more than healthy dose of perfectionism, sometimes discourage us from seeking out help from out colleagues. I know that I’m terrible about asking for help, in that I don’t ask for help often enough or as soon as I should.

For those who worry that asking for help will make you look like a shirker, here’s a little rule of thumb: you don’t want to put your colleagues in the position of having to do your job or fulfill your responsibilities for you, especially not routinely. That said, I would much rather have a colleague ask for help with a small problem than have to deal with an even larger problem later on because the person was too stubborn or proud to ask for help when the problem was more manageable.

Encouraging others and ourselves to ask for help before small problems become larger problems might mean that we also need to offer to help each other out more often. I’m not saying that we should offer to take on the responsibilities of others, but that when we can help out a colleague, and when we are sincere in our intent to help, we should offer that help, explicitly.

When I began my graduate studies, I naively and idealistically thought of academe as a particularly enlightened institution. It isn’t. I doubt that we treat each other much better, though hopefully no worse, than people treat each other in most other professional communities. But a little more humility about our mistakes and a little more generosity in offering our help sure would go a long way toward improving life in the academy. For everyone.

And by all means, avoid the passive voice. Someone dodging responsibility says, "Mistakes were made." Someone taking responsibility says, "I made a mistake."


Back to Top