I have, of course, made many, many more than eight mistakes since I started my career some 15-odd years ago. But in keeping with this week’s 8-themed blogs as Createful celebrates its 8th birthday, I’ve managed to keep the number down.
My aim is to share with you some key errors I’ve made in the working world, with a tip or two that might help you to dodge them yourself.
Likely not confined to me, this one. Probably one of the more common traits we adopt as we take our first steps into the world of work is a lack of self-belief: the feeling that we’ve got little to offer.
However, as the years have passed, I have become more and more convinced of the value that inexperience can bring into the workplace. Businesses by their very nature look to create efficient systems, and are often heavily geared with processes and ‘best practices’ that are all-too-easy to become attached to. Often, it’s only when a new pair of eyes such as an intern or apprentice enters the equation, and our approach to a particular problem is met with a general look of bemusement, that we spot instances where we’ve been doing things ‘just because’.
Newcomers can often discount themselves, feeling they can’t measure up to colleagues, who figuratively tower over them with their ‘X years of experience’, even though X years of experience doesn’t necessarily mean X years of continued improvement; it could just as easily be X years of doing the exact same thing over and over, or X years of repeating the same mistakes.
When I’ve suffered low-confidence at work (or anywhere else for that matter), I think it’s usually because I’m placing an inordinate amount of my self-worth in how I measure up compared to others. That’s a fast-track to ‘I’m dumb’-sville.
Tip: There’s nowhere near enough room in this blog to cover this topic properly (and I’m nowhere near expert enough). But if you’re suffering low self-confidence, and I had to point you to one thing to start with, it would be to spend time figuring out, of all the things you do at work, what you do best, and major in it. Read books, watch videos, listen to audiobooks, get feedback, think about it in the shower, write about it, just fixate on being the best you can possibly be at that thing, and keep a running log of your progress. Once you’re on that track, you’ll be measuring yourself against yourself — much healthier than the alternative.
Nobody likes that person who’s gotten a little too big for their boots. At times in my life when I’ve felt that the wind has been at my back, for whatever reason, I’ve found it’s possible to start to feel a little infallible. Aside from having the potential to rub colleagues up the wrong way, the danger here is that we find that it becomes our new normal, and when the universe inevitably corrects itself and we hit a bump in the road, it can feel like our mental self-model is starting to come to bits.
Tip: Remember that you can be wrong (and you can be wrong a lot), but also remember that that’s ok. Make an agreement with a trusted friend or colleague that you’ll keep an eye on one another, not only to stop you getting big-headed, but also the opposite: to back each other up when you’re feeling inadequate. But when I start to realise that life’s not about winning every encounter, and that there’s much more value in learning, it becomes clear that the only way to become the best version of myself is to stop believing my own hype, and to get interested in what I’m wrong about. In the chaotic washing machine of life, this isn’t an easy thing to maintain, requiring a regular paradigm reset, but it’s well worth it.
A classic trap. It can feel pretty good to have a good moan about something. But what we don’t tend to pay attention to is the effect that fostering such an impulse can do, over time, to our general outlook on the world. And we can trigger one another, and so the problem is multiplied. Although I’m generally upbeat, from time to time I’ve found myself falling into habits of using complaining as small-talk (anything to break the silence, right?). This achieves nothing of value beyond the fleeting boost of chatting to someone about something with which we agree.
Tip: I can’t speak to your circumstances. But I find that a regular realignment of my perspective on life as a whole is hugely helpful here. It can make all the difference to dwell on just how privileged many of us are to a) be alive, b) live somewhere where we’re relatively safe, and c) have freedom of choice/movement. When I think about the percentage of people in the world who don’t have all (or even one) of those things, I tend to find it easier to let the little things go.
4) Bottling up
When the pressure is on everyone in the team, it can feel self-indulgent to express our own personal frustrations or sense of overwhelm, because ‘everyone’s in the same boat’. But for me, I can only go on so long pretending I’m on top of everything before something will give way. That might mean I end up being short with someone, or simply lose general motivation, or a sense of meaning.
Tip: Easy to say, hard to do: find someone (how about that person from Mistake #2?) who you trust and can feel vulnerable with, and let them know you’re feeling the burn. Perhaps they are too. It can be all too tempting in the workplace to feel like you have to be superhuman, and showing emotion is a sign of weakness. The way I feel about it, if someone is secure enough in their own character to make themselves vulnerable, all that does is convey a sense of authenticity, which actually elevates them in my view.
5) Taking too many notes
I used to think that diligent note-taking was one of my standout qualities. It wasn’t until a colleague in a past job pointed out that I was perceived to be someone with their ‘head down’, that it dawned on me that my incessant scribbling might not be so much of a strength after all. Furthermore, I realised that I rarely ever actually read more than 20% of the notes I took.
Tip: My point here is not ‘Don’t take notes’ (there’s good evidence that the mere act of doing so aids recall), but more ‘Trust your memory’, and only note down what you sense is the 10-20% most important stuff. If you always use your notebook as a crutch for your memory, you might never improve it.
Not only that, but the less you’re looking down at your notepad and the more you’re engaging and making eye contact with who’s talking, the more you’ll understand of what they’re saying; not in literal terms (as in the words you’re writing), but the subtext: the ‘Why’, which might be immeasurably more valuable.
6) Not taking any notes
There’s something of a trend emerging here, can you spot it? As amusing as it is to me to create these rather silly little contradictory pairs, there is a point I want to make here, just to temper the preceding Mistake #5.
I wasn’t born with excellent recall, and coupled with it being in my nature to be easily distracted, I have found that if I don’t commit to memory the salient points of a meeting, later I’ll be spotted frowning at empty space, trying to remember that “really good point”, or that “important job I said I’d do”. Aside from the obvious — I waste my own time having to retrace my steps/ask others to remind me, risk here is that friends and colleagues (perhaps subconsciously) start to feel that perhaps I’m not the most reliable member of the team, and thus I’m not providing the value I want to be.
Tip: Unless you have one of those photographic memories (and even if you do), take the odd note, especially if you’ve promised to do something. An added benefit: even if you have no need for the note, seeing you writing it could promote a positive feeling in the other person, showing them that you’re paying attention, and that you value the agreement.
7) Living in chaos
There’s something to be said for being okay with things not all being in perfect order. After all, the world isn’t a neat-and-tidy, tied-up-with-a-bow type of place. But if you’re anything like me, you’re a bit prone to distraction, and if I look back to the times in my life where I feel I’ve progressed the least as a human being, it’s when I’ve been living in a state of physical and mental disarray, very much moment-to-moment, with no clear understanding of where I’m going, or what’s important to me.
These days, I tend to take a love for order to the extreme (see the next Mistake #8), but I have noticed that finding a happy middle ground between being a) comfortable in a degree of disorder and b) being an actual robot, has seen my ability to focus skyrocket, and can get into productivity mode much more easily.
Tip: Don’t get hung up on having a perfectly tidy desk, but do think about the things you have in your life that distract you from what you really want to do/be. Example: look at your phone screen. How many of the apps do you see there that really add value to your life? How many of them, if you looked back in 3 years, do you think will have served your life’s goals, rather than have stolen your attention away from them? I’ve adopted a great tip of removing almost every icon from my phone’s home screen, so that when I absently take it out of my pocket and look at it, I see nothing, and tend to be made aware in the moment that I’m acting passively and becoming distracted.
8) Paralysis by organisation
I constantly struggle with this. As a sucker for method, and someone who loves to make lists and organise things, I often fall into the trap of thinking that if only I can capture absolutely everything I want to do, that somehow I’ll find time to do it. The reality is that is almost never the case,
It doesn’t help that it feels so good to make everything neat and tidy (that dopamine shot we get from making quick little accomplishments). But ironically, by trying to get everything perfectly organised, we might actually be procrastinating from getting started on the few things that will actually have the most impact on our lives.
Tip: I don’t think I’ll ever get past my love for a tidy desk or an ordered to-do list, but I do make an effort these days to try to be more aware of slipping into ‘tidy up’ mode, when I know full well that I’m only doing it because it takes much less brain power than to do the big, difficult and important thing I’m putting off. Stop pruning the roses — the house is on fire.
So there you have it. 8 mistakes, and 8 “Take ‘em with a ladle of salt” tips. I hope you find them useful. If you have any thoughts or experiences you’d like to share on the matter, I’m always keen to hear.