Learning from your own stupid mistakes: 4 things I need to remember about screwing things up that might help you, too


At least 60% of the stuff on this blog looks at something someone screwed up and how to make it better. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a hypocrite, so it’s confession time:

I screwed up Monday.

(I bolded this because I needed to emphasize this and I’m not supposed to curse on the blog, the publishers tell me. However, if there ever was a time for a necessary f-bomb, it would be here…)

In my post on Emily Reise, I was paying a lot of attention to certain details, like what her company does and where she had previously worked so I didn’t get her in trouble with her boss. In doing so, I messed up the most basic of details: Her name, which I spelled “ee” instead of “ei” in the original post.

Making this error even dumber, I included what she said about getting a failing grade for misspelling a name back in her first writing class and how it made a difference in the way she approaches her work now.

I shipped her a copy of the post to look over for mistakes and she quickly sent me this message:


Seeing this felt like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer.

I apologized and quickly reworked it as best I could to grab back every error-riddled version from every area of social media I could. Still, I couldn’t fix everything, so I deleted and reposted stuff to try to fix it. Shortly after I did this, she sent me another message:


Nope. I’m just an idiot.

The point of this blog has always been to turn dumb things into teachable moments. So with a lot of egg on my face, I’ll be enjoying a dinner of crow, with a side of humble pie. In the mean time, here are the things I have to remember that might help you all as well:

If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right: As God as my witness, I have no damned idea how I managed to screw this up. I was pulling pieces out of her interview, checking on several websites and doing everything I normally do. This just happened.

The one thing that should have tipped me off was that something didn’t feel right.

When I tried to pull up her LinkedIn profile, I was having trouble finding it. (Because I spelled her name wrong.) When I was looking at our conversation on LinkedIn that got this whole thing rolling, something didn’t look right. (Because I spelled her name wrong.) Even in looking for the original interview, I initially couldn’t find it when I went searching for it in my email. (Because I spelled her name wrong!!!)

I should have stopped and thought harder about it, but nothing has been feeling exactly normal these days, so I kind of blew off my own thoughts and just published.

Next time, when something doesn’t look right or feel right, I’m giving it another look until I figure out what it is.

Everyone needs an editor: One of the major downsides of running a one-man operation on this blog is that I don’t get a second set of eyes on my work until it’s too late. (Granted, I often have a conversation with all the voices in my head before I publish, but it’s not the same as having a good editor.)

Aside from catching the typos and the grammar errors, good editors make you widen your view and think harder about what it is you screwed up so you won’t do it again. This is why I will always want folks like my copy editor, Jim Kelly, to work with me on my books. He is the guy who not only keeps me from referring to something as a “pubic speech,” but he’s also the person who can show me what I didn’t do right and how to avoid it in the future. (He remains the only person on Earth to get me closer to understanding “affect/effect” in my writing.)

As much as I appreciate the post-hoc editing of folks out there, I’d like to avoid screwing up in the first place. Good editors make that happen.

Admit it, fix it, move on: Speaking of screwing up, I have to admit that this particular screw up caused me physical pain.

I’m serious. My chest hurt when I got that message because I was thinking, “Dammit, how am I supposed to tell people what to do in their work if I’m screwing up myself?”

Well, for starters, I’m not on a lunchbox, so I’m going to screw up. That’s not an excuse or a justification, but rather a statement of fact.

Could I have told Emily, “Aha! I was just testing you!” and then made the switch? Sure.

But then I’d be exactly the chucklehead I’m telling other people not to be. As my State Journal editor Teryl Franklin told me once after the worst mistake (to date, knock on wood) in my career, “If you don’t deal with this, how will you ever be able to teach students what to do when they make mistakes?”

She was right. It’s important to not only fix the mistakes but admit that you screwed up in the first place. Honesty matters.

The hardest thing for me, actually, is the last part: Move on.

When I was a reporter at the State Journal, I had something like six or seven corrections over three years. However, they were all bunched in clumps and surrounded by about a half-dozen “near misses” that a copy editor or designer caught before the paper pressed.

The reason was simple: I was so determined not to make THAT MISTAKE again, that I would become myopic about it and miss a half-dozen other stupid things I should have caught.

Moving on means being able to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time again when it comes to writing and editing. Keep an eye on everything, realize that you’re not going to catch everything and try to prevent the stupid stuff from burying you.

If I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.

You learn more from your students than they do from you: Educators who keep an open mind always want to learn something new, and students provide that every day with their insights and experiences. Their inquisitive nature will get us to look at things in a different way than we normally do. They also have the ability to remind us of the things we told them that we need to remember more often.

Emily told me she keeps my textbook on her desk and that she uses her experiences in our journalism department every day that she plies her trade.

In the post, she also mentioned this: “Filak was right. You will always remember spelling that damn person’s last name wrong.”

Very true.



2 thoughts on “Learning from your own stupid mistakes: 4 things I need to remember about screwing things up that might help you, too

  1. Holly Susi says:

    Your blog gave me painful flashbacks to two big mistakes I made writing for a newspaper. I covered a spelling bee (you can already see where this is going, right?) and misspelled the winning word. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the editor who typed the correction the next day, misspelled it again in an entirely new way. Then there was the time i was so happy the cops called me to go on a marijuana-growing raid in a field next to a house. Great story except I used the wrong street name in the next day’s paper. Apparently people up and down the street I had named came out of their houses looking to see which stately colonial had marijuana pulled from the backyard. There’s nothing so humbling as having that front page story require a front page correction the next day.

  2. Eric Jacobs says:

    Well, if you’re talking copy editing misses: “Emily told me she keep my textbook on her desk…”

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