What to Do When You Make a Monumental Mistake

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 16, Issue No. 8b
December 15, 2017

By Dan Coughlin


Recently I made a monumental mistake, and I learned, and relearned, five key lessons.

I had several important meetings in Toronto on November 14 – 16. I had planned for this trip for several months. I created two programs I was excited to teach to an important group on November 15th. I lined up 15 one-on-one meetings with people of whom I had never met several of them in person before that trip. I packed my bags two days early, I made sure I had my passport with me, and I went over my presentations several times. Nothing could go wrong. I had every detail covered…

Except one.

My flight was scheduled to leave St. Louis at 8:30 AM on November 14th. At 11 AM on November 13th I went to check-in for my flight and realized that my passport had expired. Wow, those ten years went by fast.

In the next 24 hours, I went to the Post Office in St. Louis to find out that the only way to get a passport immediately was to take my picture at the post office in St. Louis, make an appointment with a Regional Passport Office, fly to either Hot Springs, Arkansas or Chicago, IL (I went to Chicago) that day, get a hotel room (with my wife, Barb’s, help), pack my clothes, drive to the St. Louis airport, go to Chicago, get to the hotel, get in line at 8 AM on November 14th to hand in my passport paperwork, come back at 2:30 PM to pick up my new passport, change my flight to Toronto to 8 PM, take a cab to O’Hare Airport, and catch the last flight to Toronto on November 14th so I could speak to a group of 90 people at 9 AM Eastern Time the next morning. And then have 15 one-on-one Executive Coaching sessions on November 15 – 16.

From that day henceforth it will be known as my $1300 passport after paying the penalty at the Passport office, booking flights, changing flights, getting a hotel room, and grabbing taxis and meals. But it was all worth it. Two magical days in Toronto.

That whirlwind experience was filled with anxiety and lessons learned and relearned from other monumental mistakes I made in the past. Here are the lessons:

Lesson #1: You can get more done faster than you realize.

As I stood at the Post Office in St. Louis on Monday morning and realized what I had to do in the next 24 hours, I thought there was no way I would be in Toronto by Tuesday night. I just kept telling myself, “Move, just keep moving, don’t stop, do your best to get there.” And magically it all worked out.

Lesson #2: Admit it was your fault and then do your best.

As soon as I realized I was going to miss my meetings with two individuals on Tuesday afternoon, I told the two people that it was all my fault and apologized several times. They both were remarkably understanding.

I warned the meeting planners that I might not make it for my presentations on Wednesday morning. They were both amazingly calm, cool, and collected. At least with me. There might have been a few swear words lifted in my direction that I don’t know about. I promised them I would do everything I could to be on time for the meeting. I got into the meeting room at 6:30 AM on Wednesday and memorized everyone’s name. I didn’t want to miss anything.

Lesson #3: Follow instructions exactly.

When I spoke with the government employee who explained what I had to do over the next 24 hours to get to Toronto, I wrote it all down and read it back to him a few times. He corrected a few things I said, and I made the adjustments. Then I did EXACTLY what he told me to do. If I had deviated on any step, I would not have made it to Toronto on time.

Lesson #4: Make the most of a bad situation.

As I traveled to Chicago and then on to Toronto, I could have stewed and worried the whole two days, or…

I could read a book.

So I read 110 pages of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. What an amazing story about a guy who just kept pressing forward and getting stuff done. Quite inspirational in many ways.

Lesson #5: Deliver the goods.

When I got in front of the audience to speak and when I did the one-on-one Executive Coaching sessions I let go of my passport debacle, and I just focused on them. My goal was to give them practical advice they could consider using in order to achieve their desired outcomes. By letting go of everything else I was able to stay in a state of flow. It turned out to be a truly great experience being with all of those folks.

Mistakes happen. Very, very big mistakes happen. We’re human. It’s okay. Just go do the best you can with whatever you’re dealing with.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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