Tech & Work

How to stay motivated after you've made a mistake

Everyone blunders. But it's how you deal with it and what you learn from it that makes you a good employee and better human being.

Have you ever had one of those days at work where at the end of it you just want to cry, get drunk, go home and bury yourself under a blanket, or all of the above? We all have those days. We've all committed some blunder that is really and truly only ours to own. The question is, what do you do about it?

I read a piece by Robert Pagliarini for BNET, called Bad Day? 5 Tips to Keep Your Motivation, and it got me thinking about what my own advice would be to people who have made a work error that threatens to derail their peace of mind. First, I would echo a couple of points that Mr. Pagliarini made:

Avoid overgeneralization —  This is so true. It's very common for someone to make a mistake and then have that mistake define their whole being. Let's say your group made a change to the network that resulted in an hour of downtime for your company's website. An hour downtime translates into lot of money for many companies, but this mistake was something you couldn't have anticipated. Forgive yourself and put the thing in perspective: Look how many hours/days/months the site has been running unaffected before this incident. The CEO may still give you holy grief but at least you will be easier on yourself. A mistake does not define you as a human being. Avoid personalization — Some bad things happen that you have no control over. Pagliarini calls this a "cognitive distortion" — the tendency to blame yourself for negative events that are beyond your control. It's interesting how some people turn everything internally and others don't rest until they find someone else to blame. Find a happy medium.

My own suggestions for how to overcome a blunder or bad day are:

Don't obsess — You can go over and over in your mind and find the exact point at which you made a mistake. Maybe it was a conversation where you said something you shouldn't have. But guess what? The instant replay never changes. You can't turn back time and do or say something different. Focus instead on how you can move forward, past the incident. Use humor — Sometimes, and this may just be a sign of my warped mentality, but when my day is going extraordinarily wrong, I start mining it for humor. I keep track of all the miscues and the mistakes and it all becomes fodder for a funny story later. One day while driving home during a storm, I was in a fender-bender. When I finally got home, drenched from the rain, I discovered that a tree had fallen on my house. (It had fallen near my front porch so there was no great amount of internal damage. After I got over the "Are you kidding me?" moment, I had a whopper of a story to tell my friends.) Use a talisman — Maybe you have your diploma hanging on your office wall. Or maybe you have a picture of your spouse and kids. These things should remind you of what's really important and be evidence of what you can do, not what you can't or didn't do.

Here's a simple thing that I do that has more power than I initially thought it would have. On my desk, I have a picture of myself at about eight years old. I didn't have a lot of advantages as a kid and had a lot of reasons not to do anything with my life. But under those ubiquitous uneven bangs and goofy half-smile, I see something that looks like hope and determination. So when things go wrong, I just look over at that little girl and become determined to overcome the little things and live up to that look in her eyes.

Do whatever it takes to put things in perspective, because, who knows what good you might accomplish tomorrow.

About Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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