If You Are Not Making Mistakes

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“Deb, I just want to know how you did it,” he asked.

How I did it? Did what?

I had the distinct feeling that whatever I’d done wasn’t good.

I was in the corner office of the executive vice president for a mid-sized publishing company—my journalism degree so new that the ink was still drying. I was young, inexperienced, ambitious, and completely unqualified to manage a direct mail marketing campaign. But I’d been hired to write copy, supervise development, and manage production of a major direct mail recruitment campaign. My mailing lists had been purchased, labels run, drop date set, and revenues projected. The mailers were printed and delivered on time, on budget. My project was on schedule, until that morning.

“How did I do what?”

“How did you manage to make the envelopes too small?”

The recruitment packet had two envelopes. The problem was with the outer one. Our brochures missed fitting inside it by a fraction of an inch; the envelopes were useless. Momentarily frozen before his desk, I had trouble comprehending the words. The enormity of my mistake began to dawn on me. Scheduled drop date blown, quarterly revenues shot. I mentally calculated reprint costs like a first grader sounding out a word, and I fought back rising tears. The next words would be, “I’m sorry, Deb. We’re going to have to let you go.” Staring at my shoes so hard they become blurry, I was already telling my family and friends I’d been fired.

Finally I lifted my gaze from my pointy-toed pumps to a face that was not at all what I expected. His next words made me wonder if I was dreaming.

The executive vice president had the beginning of a smile, even a chuckle. “Go call the printer and see how quickly he can reprint these envelopes. Just make sure you tell them the right size,” he said. “Then come back and let’s figure this out.”

Unsure which stunned me most—my mistake or his response to it—I left his office to make the call, still a bit numb. In moments, I had the information and hesitantly returned to his office. Scheduling complications were quickly resolved as I sat there, but I didn’t get up to leave.

“Bill, is that it?” I said.

“Is what it?”

“That’s all you’re going to say? You’re not going to fire me? Or tell me this is all my fault, or ask how I could have been so stupid?”

“Deb,” he said, “this happens. Trying to figure out whose fault it is doesn’t do anything to solve the problem. We all make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.”

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.

I was not fired. Staying with that company for nearly a decade, I became executive director of marketing over a ten-member creative team, managing a multimillion dollar budget. And, yes, more than once, I heard myself saying to a younger staff member, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning. Let’s see what we need to do to fix this.”

Most of the material on The High Calling is available for reuse under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Unfortunately, work by Debra Klingsporn is not available for reuse. If you are interested in reprinting work by Debra Klingsporn, please contact her directly.