What’s Your Favorite Mistake?

After my wife’s first month as an art director of a magazine, she signed off on her first cover. It was a major professional milestone, and a proud achievement – a gorgeous piece of work, as I can attest. She sent the image to the production team, who signed off on it as well, and passed it along to the printing plant. Only after the 100,000 copies of the magazine had left the printing press was the error recognized: my wife and the production had all forgotten to include a bar-scan code on the cover. Without it, vendors couldn’t sell the magazine. The distributors refused to send it out. Virtually the entire print run had to be pulped.

What my wife and her team had suffered from was a failure of prospective memory – the inability to keep in mind every aspect of a goal that one sets for oneself. If you’ve ever walked out the door in the morning and realized you’ve left your work papers on the kitchen counter, you’ve suffered a failure of prospective memory. This type of mistake is all the more vexing for being so common and seemingly avoidable. I’ve never felt so flat-out dumb as I did the day I locked my car keys inside the car. I’ll never forget that horrible feeling of shame, seeping over me like hot acid, as I realized that with a shove of the car door I’d done something that could not easily be undone.

And it’s a good thing I’ll never forget. Mistakes are things that we learn from. I’ve never locked my keys in the car since. And my wife has never sent off a cover that’s missing a crucial element. From that day on, the company instituted a procedure that demanded that staff run through a written check list at every critical phase of production.

Right now I’m working on an article about mistakes, and why we make them, and I’d love to include lots of vivid mistakes from all walks of life. Do you have a favorite mistake? That is, not to say one that you’d care to repeat anytime soon, but that has been burned so deeply in your memory that you’ll never repeat it? I’m not just looking for failures of prospective memory, but any screwup that’s left you feeling hot-faced with shame: a bad judgment call, a missed opportunity, an attempt to show off that ended badly. If so, please drop me a line, either here or on my Facebook page, or post it in a comment. You can be anonymous if you like!

10 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Mistake?”

  1. As a trader, one of the easiest mistakes to make is placing a stop order on an active trade or forgetting to remove pending trades before walking away from the computer screen. These are mistakes that you only do once because you can literately pay dearly from them. Nothing like losing money on a palm-against-the-forehead moment.

  2. My mistake is not as small as locking your keys in the car or forgetting a barcode, small things that result in huge consequences. My mistake was huge and has resulted in small but important changes. At the age of 22, I fell in love. My choice was a poor one, I see now. Having the experience now behind me, I can see how I’ve revised my goals and the things I thought were important to me. I’ve begun to plan for the future. I’m sure more changes will become obvious as time goes on. So far, the consequences of the experience have had minimal impact on my life, but will show their reach ten, fifteen years from now. I don’t regret it, I feel I have changed and will continue to grow. Probably most importantly, I’ll look at mistakes I’m sure to make in the future, and see how I have or can improve from them.

  3. How about those rogue traders, like Nick Leeson at Barings, who make a bad trade, and then try to cover their losses with another trade that goes bad — panicking, they keep trying to double down, with judgement increasingly clouded by panic…

  4. I once chased away a business customer, thinking they were a door-to-door salesman.

    I was working at an Internet/Web services company that was based in a storefront office on a busy road, and I usually dealt with any walk-in customers. This road was notorious for the number of door-to-door salesmen, hucksters, donation solicitors, and even high-school kids playing pranks. Having been burned plenty of times I had cultivated an eye for the early signs of a shyster, plus a forceful, but polite manner to send them off.

    So one day a guy in a suit comes in with a big smile, carrying what looked like a flyer, and started with what I thought was a canned “Boy have I got a great deal for you” speech. There were enough subliminal cues that I just went on Full Automatic, shaking my head and holding up my palms.

    “Nope, sorry, not interested.”

    The man’s face fell and he protested, started saying something about wanting to bring us new business, but by then I had my defenses all the way up, and I kept repeating “sorry, not interested.”

    Finally he got exasperated and walked out of the store, and seconds later my boss–having just overheard the last few seconds–is sprinting after him down the street, grabbing him by the shoulder, apologizing and swearing up and down that I was a new guy who didn’t know what he was doing.

    So now, even though I still hate cold-calling salesmen, I have learned to pace my temper and listen more carefully.

  5. I learnt to be a good dad hard way. My son is now nearly 3. Almost a year back I was at the beach near my home where the beach Bar owner has put few metal chairs under shades. Once while waiting for my wife I made my son stand on the iron chair so that I could clean my glasses. And in a moment, BAM!, here my son goes in the middle of 4 chairs hitting his head to the pole of umbrella & under the table. F***!! I never realized he was trying to tell me that he was unable to make his balance. OMG!!! My heart sank with guilty feeling. Thankfully he did not hurt himself badly and after a moment of crying he started playing again. But, it was a great lesson for me in the path of being a better dad.

  6. Ugh, I can totally relate. I’ve got a 3-yr-old and a 9-months old, and the little one is just starting to get to the age where he can get himself into big trouble without having any idea what’s in store. You shift your focus for one nanosecond and boom… thanks for sharing your story, and I’m sure glad your son was okay!

  7. Your article really hit home for me, and I’m glad I can now describe this phenomenon with a name: the failure of prospective memory. This happens to me much more often than I’d like. A couple of examples:

    1. A few years ago I headed to the airport for a conference trip, and as I was going through security I realized that I’d left the poster I was to present at home. Leaning against the door. Which I’d propped it against so that I absolutely, positively, could not forget it. Yet somehow I stepped over it and left without noticing! Thankfully, a coworker was able to go to my house, get the poster, and fedex it to my conference hotel.

    2. More recently, I left for a different business trip and managed to leave my laptop bag at home… with the laptop in it. Which contained the presentation I was to deliver. I discovered this as I parked at the airport. I had arrived early, so it was just barely possible that I could drive back home, retrieve the laptop, and still make my flight. I rushed home, got the laptop, and was on the way back to the airport when I got sideswiped by another car on the freeway. No one was hurt, but there was an inevitable delay, and I missed my flight. Thankfully, Southwest put me on the next flight, but boy, what a disaster!

    3. Last month, I joined a field excursion for work to collect images and samples in the Mojave. I carefully packed the night before… then (of course) managed to bring my laptop bag but leave behind the daypack that contained all of my water, snacks, hat, and gear. I was able to buy a hat and someone else brought extra water, so it was okay, but I was still kicking myself.

    I don’t know if I’m particularly good at forgetting the most important item, or if those are just the stories that stand out in my memory. Argh!

  8. What’s really amazing is that even though you’re taking steps to deal with the problem — like leaning the poster against the door so you really, really won’t be able to overlook it — the power of habit is so strong that you’re able to trundle right past the reminders you’ve set for yourself. That suggests you need more powerful triggers/alarms. Personally I’ve been using my iPhone a lot more to trigger myself with reminders — I set the timer when I put food on the stove or add a load of laundry to the washing machine. There’s always that small window of conscious awareness when we set a task for ourselves, when we have to gauge: am I going to remember to finish this task or not? As your cases show, we often overestimate our ability to bring that task back into focus.

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