A Guide To Screwing Up In The Digital Age

Everybody makes mistakes. An unforgiving culture and the public nature of the internet means it's now harder to get over them and move on, but it's still an important learning experience you shouldn't avoid. Knowing how to handle your errors can help you take important risks and fail gracefully, so gather your courage and let's talk about messing up.

It's almost impossible to get through a day without hearing about some horrible statement a person made on Twitter or an apology from the last guy to make a public blunder. When we're typing into the record of the internet, it becomes public information. Even if you post a message to a select group of people, if it generates the fury of a few, it can find its way outside of your inner circle, incur the wrath of an angry internet, and even hurt your reputation at work.

Fair or not, your missteps will be remembered more clearly than your successes because negative emotion creates stronger, more accurate memories [PDF]. This doesn't provide a safe environment for the occasional slip-up, and so we try to be perfect. This is the wrong approach and causes more mistakes than it prevents. In this post, we're going to look at why that is and how you can actually screw up effectively.

Why Mistakes Are Important

If you never fail, you never learn. If you never learn, you never make progress. It's difficult to move forward in life if you don't know what does and does not work. Taking risks and making mistakes help you acquire that information. This isn't a new idea, but what might surprise you is that you're actually less likely to make a mistake if you afford yourself the right to make one. Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist, explains:

We approach most of what we do with one of two types of goals: what I call be-good goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you're doing, and get-better goals, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning a new skill. It's the difference between wanting to show that you are smart vs. wanting to get smarter. The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when things get hard. We quickly start to doubt our ability ("Oh no, maybe I'm not good at this!"), and this creates a lot of anxiety. Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does - it is the goal-killer.

This idea carries over into social situations, where the concept is actually more obvious. If you strive for perfection when dealing with other people, your brain is going to make you anxious. When you try too hard to be and act a certain way, you're almost assured failure. There isn't a single person on the planet who hasn't tried to act "cooler" than themselves and instead achieved disaster. You sabotage yourself by aiming to be better rather than to become better. Choosing to make mistakes is actually a heck of a lot easier and more effective.

How To Make Mistakes (And Recover From Them) Effectively

The freedom to make mistakes isn't everything. You'll solve few problems if you don't make an effort to mess up effectively. Part of the solution to this problem is making your errors early on, as a phenomenon called the sunk cost fallacy causes us to go down with a sinking ship simply because we've spent a lot of time with it. When the stakes are high, we'll do almost anything to avoid losing. When those stakes are lower, it's easier to overcome our obsessive drive for loss-aversion.

First, you need to recognise when the stakes are low. A social situation with a stranger you could easily never see again may make you feel anxious, but there's little to lose. It's better to say something stupid in that content than in front of someone you hope to impress, or online for the world to see. In a work environment, you just have to allow yourself to experiment before you dive into a project. Liberal allowances of trial and error make it easier to find fault. If you wait too long to play with your ideas, you run the greater risk of getting stuck while trying to salvage a sinking ship.

But what happens when you actually do make a mistake? You try and make the best out of a bad situation. How bad that situation actually is will depend on a number of factors, but let's take a look at a few examples:

You just posted an insensitive comment on Facebook and people are angry. When this happens, you have a couple of options, the simplest of which is to delete it. That gets rid of the immediate problem of everyone getting in your face, but that doesn't resolve the lingering anger amongst your friends. It also doesn't prevent anyone who took a screenshot from posting it elsewhere should they choose to do so. (Remember all those racist Hunger Games tweets? You don't have to because they're forever captured on the internet.) Instead of deleting the post, consider hiding it from public view instead. This way you can respond to people you upset (and apologise if necessary), but it won't continue to spread to other people who come across it. If you get to a point where you need to make an apology, you'll find tips to help you out later on in this post.

You took a risky chance on a project at work that didn't pan out. The only thing you can really do is apologise to your boss and affected coworkers. The important thing is to take responsibility as soon as possible. An in-person apology will seem more sincere than an email because you can use effective body language to better convey your message. It's also easier for them to forgive you if they see you're already beating yourself up over the situation.

They key steps in both of these situations are as follows:

  • Put a stop to the anger and prevent further damage from happening.
  • Acknowledge that you made a mistake. Don't pretend like it didn't happen.

Keep those things in mind and you'll screw up effectively.

How To Gracefully Apologise For An Error

Risks don't always equal rewards. There will be moments when you take a chance, fall flat on your face and make a few people feel awful in the process. In these instances, an apology is often in order. You may not feel that you've done anything wrong, but when others feel hurt you have to weigh the pros and cons of admitting wrongdoing. A simple apology is often better than adhering to your principles, even if it seems ridiculous to say you're sorry. Relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil explains why:

The offender doesn't get to dictate how another person should feel when something bad is done to offend them. Even minor offenses can make some people feel a disproportionate amount of 'hurt'. While I'm the first one to say that a person who makes a huge deal out of something "minor" (such as misplacing their pen) probably has some issues of their own, as the offending party you don't get a say in their emotional reaction... besides, what's minor for you can be a big deal to them. If a person wants to feel indignation, that's their prerogative (no matter how ridiculous you feel that indignation is). Some people need time to allow the emotions to die down so letting them feel whatever they feel is a good course of action. As long as the person doesn't do something to make matters worse (e.g. slander you), the situation should start to improve.

If you decide that apologising is the best course of action, you want to be sincere. That can be difficult in a situation where you feel an apology isn't warranted and you didn't make much of a mistake. When such a situation arises, it helps to think more about how the other person is hurt instead of the actual issue at hand. Regarding the content, Roger suggests that the best course of action is explaining how you'll correct the situation:

Reassure those you're apologising to that you're making improvements (only if you mean it) recognising the impact of your offence is one thing, it's a whole other thing to prevent a similar offence in the future. If you posted something online that hurt another person, let the world know that you will exercise more discretion and consult others prior to posting content that you feel may be offensive. If you're apologising because you forgot your anniversary, let your significant other know that you're setting up reminders on your calendar. (Just note that having to rely on a calendar to remember an anniversary may lead some people to be even more upset with you.)

While having a plan is going to help, ultimately the best apology is learning from your mistake and doing better. That's really the benefit of screwing up in the first place. Mistakes are stressful when you hurt other people, and it's not the sort of thing that makes anyone feel good. But nobody's perfect. Everyone has to make a few errors here and there to learn how to do things better. If you allow yourself to make mistakes, take more chances when there's a lower risk of a problem, and know when and how to apologise effectively when necessary, you'll be giving yourself the opportunity to grow, learn and become better.

Public Mistakes Handled Gracefully And Intelligently

Public apologies are rampant nowadays, and some are handled better than others. While most of us aren't celebrities, we can learn from their graceful apologies. Here are some of the best and what you can take away from each.

Netflix's Reed Hastings apologises for suddenly separating DVD and streaming services Customers were in an uproar when video service Netflix decided to split its DVD and streaming businesses into separate entities. It wasn't long before the company realised this was a bad idea and changed its decision. This apology comes with two good lessons we discussed above: try out your ideas earlier on when the decision won't be such a big deal, and explain your actions so people don't assume what they mean. This apology occurred before Netflix decided to keep the two services together and served to explain to customers the reasoning behind the choice. It's very humble, thorough and well-written.

Actor Jason Alexander apologises for calling cricket a gay sport Some people may think this is a silly thing to warrant an apology. There are far more offensive, anti-gay comments being made by regular people every day, but there are reasons people are offended by seemingly silly comments like this one, and Jason Alexander took that to heart when he wrote a thoughtful apology. He spent the time to figure out what the problem was and why his behaviour troubled others. Even if you decide against apologising for something you say, the right course of action is to do what he did. Figure out why people are offended. You may find that you do feel badly and want to address their concerns. If you don't, at least you'll have a better understanding of both sides of the argument.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos Apologises for Deleting 1984 from Kindles In what was perhaps one of the most ironic technological gaffes of our time, Amazon discovered it had been illegally selling digital copies of the book 1984 and suddenly removed them from Kindles (much like Big Brother would have done). Between all of the jokes, people were genuinely upset. One student lost his notes on the book and sued as a result. Jeff Bezos offered this apology soon after, and it's an excellent example of how to be both concise and effective.

Umpire Jim Joyce apologises for a mistaken call A major league baseball umpire is under no obligation to apologise for a mistaken call, but when Detroit Pitcher Armondo Galarraga pitched a perfect game, Jim Joyce blew the call. When Joyce watched the footage afterwards, he realised he was wrong and apologised for the mistake. This simple action showed how powerful an apology can be. If you're wrong and you admit it, people will respect you for it.

If you like reading these apologies, here are a few more to check out:

Chances are you'll never have to apologise on a massively public scale, but there's still plenty to learn from how well these issues were handled. The next time you need to apologise for a mistake, keep these lessons in mind.

Special thanks to Roger S. Gil, M.A.M.F.T. for his contributions to this post. To hear more from Roger, you can follow him on Twitter and check out his podcast.

Photos by the Everett Collection (Shutterstock).


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