When you screwup, own it.

Everyone makes mistakes. We try not to, but screwups happen anyway. We live and work in a world of ever increasing complexity. We humans, don’t get everything right 100% of the time. None of us. Given that, how we respond when we screwup is quite important. Ultimately, when you screwup, you have one fundamental choice. How are you going to respond? The screwup is over…you can’t go back in time.

Try to hide the truth?

Blame others?

Make excuses?

Nope. None of those.

My suggestion: Own it.

I’ll explain why in a moment, but first a story about one of my worst screwups. I hate this story.

20+ years ago, I was a nineteen year old kid starting out in an I.T. career. I worked in an office with ~40 people. It was my job to manage an email server. Pretty cool job for a 19 year old kid…right? I was young, eager and awfully green. When you are young and green in I.T. you have a lot of blind spots you aren’t even aware of yet.

One day, the email database on the email server (NT4 / Exchange 5.5) I managed got corrupted. That makes for a pretty bad day generally for the email server guy. Server down. No email for anyone etc. So, I started working to restore it. We had backup software that I faithfully checked each day. However, when I went to use it to recover the data, the restore failed. Uh oh.

After a long painful call with the backup software tech support folks, I learned that the type of backups we were doing were not actually suitable and I was essentially out of luck from a restore standpoint. Such a total noob mistake. At that time, I honestly had no idea. Some consultant had popped in before I was hired, setup the server and gone away. However, it was ultimately my responsibility to manage it, and I had a blind spot I was not even aware of that hit me and my employer hard.

By this point, it was after normal work hours. So, I did what every desperate Exchange server admin did back then. I called Microsoft for help. They helped as much as they could. We ran some low level database tools (eseutil and isinteg) that wiped out a bunch of corrupted database pages, but left me with a database that would mount. We saved some of the data, but not all of it. We finished up in the wee hours and I went home to grab a couple of hours of sleep.

I came in early the next day, and I spoke to both of the owners of the company I worked for. I explained what had happened and that a lot of email data had been lost. I explained that I had done everything possible to save as much data as could be saved. I sent an email out to the entire company. Oh the irony, here is an email about your email being gone. Some people did not seem to care that much. A few others were pretty mad. I did not blame the mad ones. I was mad at myself too.

Then something crazy happened that I will never forget. One of the owners was discussing it with one of the folks who was still mad. I could hear them across the hall. An odd thing happened. The owner got tired of the pointless complaining, and shut it down. He told the mad person that if some email they had was so important, they should have printed it out. It was their fault really. Wait, what? Printed it out? Ha! I guess when you own the place, you can say stuff like that and get away with it. Basically, I think he did this to get them off my case and stop the pointless complaining. It was amazing. It was totally undeserved. I sure was thankful for it.

Thankfully, it was the mid-90’s so email was less business critical back then than it is now. After a few days, people generally got over it and moved on. I doubt most of the people involved even remember it today, but boy – I sure do.

I’ve learned some lessons from that incident, and other screwups I have watched play out in the 20+ years since then. Here is my personal philosophy at this point on screwups, given what I’ve observed.

When you screwup, own it. Here is why…and a bit of how.

When you screwup and own it, people don’t question your character. Sure, you screwed up. That is bad and there may be consequences. However, you will probably live to fight another day. I went on to work for the company who’s email server I failed to properly protect for about five years total. Over the years, I earned the ever increasing trust of the owners I worked for. Why? In no small part I think because the owners knew even when it would be hard, I’d tell them the truth. I might not be perfect but I was honest and I was working hard to get better. As any business owner or manger knows, you can work with that.

Had I lied, tried to cover it up, or made excuses they would have seen right through it. I would have destroyed their trust in me. Ultimately, protecting that data was my job, and I had failed in this instance at that job. No pile of lies or excuses could change that reality. However, I was honest about my failure which left us both with a foundation of honesty and trust to build from.

Your character and credibility is ultimately what you build your life on. Own it by telling the truth – the raw, sometimes ugly, sometimes painful truth. People will know you are not perfect (hint: they already know that), and they will learn that you are honest, even when it is hard to be.

When you screwup and own it, you can learn from it and do better. Over the years, I took my failure seriously and became a more careful I.T. Professional. I worked to add diligently to my base of knowledge to avoid these sorts of blind spots. I learned to plan projects with the potential for failures and associated roll back / restore plans in mind. When I somehow ended up with responsibility for something I realized I did not adequately understand, I dove in and learned as much as possible as fast as I could.

When you don’t own it and you pretend or make excuses, you can’t learn from your mistakes. You are too busy investing energy in making excuses and pretending everything is fine. If you screwed-up, everything is not fine. Don’t pretend it is. Instead, face it, own it and challenge yourself to do better.

Invest your response energy in something productive, not in making excuses or hiding the truth. Over time, and multiple screwups your ongoing investment in either activity piles up. You either pile up war stories and lessons learned that have made you better, or you pile up excuses and incompetence. Choose your pile wisely, you’ll get to live with it.

When you screwup and own it, do everything you possibly can to make it right. Part of owning your screw-ups is doing everything you can to correct them. In the end, I was not able to bring all that dead email back to life, but I did do everything possible to save as much as possible. I think this is why that business owner stood up for me. He knew I had done all that I or anyone else could have possibly done. There was really no point in anyone giving me a hard time, so he shut Mr. Mad Guy down for me. He knew, I had learned the lesson. I wonder if he realized I’d learned it well enough to be blogging about it 20+ years later?

In my life, this experience helped me learn the importance of protecting data in a visceral way. Protecting data is serious business. That employer never lost a bit more data on my watch. I had learned the lesson. Since then, I’ve configured many backup systems for many clients and I’ve done countless successful restores. I take every single one I touch ultra-seriously. Might I some day lose data again? I guess anything is possible. I do everything possible I can think of to prevent it, but I’m also humble enough to realize I still may have blind spots (unknown unknowns – thanks Mr. Rumsfeld). Now I have the great benefit of 20+ years of experience protecting systems and data, so there are far less of those. I have also gained the benefit of a deeply emotional connection to how important that work is.

When you screwup and own it, the worst is over. Ultimately, sometimes you make mistakes you can’t entirely undo no matter how hard you try. If you’ve done all you can to fix it, and you’ve truly owned it, it’s over. There is nothing to be gained by beating yourself up. Fortunately, by owning it you also have not hidden your error or lied. Doing that only sets you up for trouble down the road.

So, my advice to you, most patient reader, is this: When you screwup, own it. By doing so, you will preserve your character and good name, you will learn from it and get better, you can sleep easy knowing you did all you could to correct it, and the worst will be behind you.

Here’s to avoiding screwups! When that fails, here’s to owning them well.