I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:
Screwing Up. Next Steps.
Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?
This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.
In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.
Step One: Accept and Acknowledge
These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.
This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.
So, you have to accept that.
Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.
I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.
Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.
This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.
Step Two: Assess
Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.
Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.
Step Three: Mitigate
Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.
Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.
Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.
If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.
The next question is, now what?
If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.
This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.
Step Four: Learning
Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.
Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.
None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.
Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
I turned down an offer of work today. On a cool project I’d love to do, too.
Now, this is unquestionably the right decision for me. I am behind on a lot of projects, and booked out for months and months on Starfinder opportunities and other things. I can’t, responsibly, take on anything else right now. When I had a thin wedge of availability, I filled it with high-priority items I think will pay a lot of career dividends, and even that was as much excitement as smart planning (though it did get my Business managers approval).
But my Freelancer Reflexes remain strong. The idea of someone offering to pay me to make games, and declining, rubs me the wrong way and often sets of waves of near-panic. I mean, if I turn down work, people will stop offering to me, right? And then I’ll have huge gaps in my production, and everyone will forget who I am, and I won’t be able to get any work, and I’ll go broke and starve.
Yes, it’s not rational. But it is part of what drove me for so many years.
But being a GOOD freelancer, even a good creative employee, means giving the people paying you their money’s worth. And that means you can’t take on so much work that you either rush any of it, or end up not being able to complete it on time, or maybe at all.
Those are hard lessons to learn. Most freelancers I know, myself definitely included, make the mistake of agreeing to too much early on, and then re-make that mistake from time to time.
You can’t do everything. You need some down time. More work will come. And, in my experience, telling someone that you’d love to do a project, but right now you are overbooked, never causes them to write you off forever. Frequently, producers appreciate that you know your limits, and make notes to contact you for other projects later on.
So yes sometimes turning down work is part of the job.
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If you have ever enjoyed anything I have ever done, you have some women to thank for it.
My mother, Claire McMurray, who even when she and my father both had full time jobs was the one who drove me to school if I missed the bus, made doctor appointments, did all the shopping, cleaned the house, bandaged injuries, cooked dinner, and somehow still had time and energy to introduce me to major aspects of fandom, be DM for me and my friends when no one else would, and talk to me when she saw I had problems.
My wife, Lj Stephens, without whom I never would have submitted my first game article, never would have gone to the TSR Writer’s Workshop, never would have learned to type, and basically “Never would have.”
Barbar Hambly, Katherine Kurtz, Mercedes Lackey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffery, and to a slightly lesser extent (because I was older) Katherine Kerr, Elizabeth Moon, and Janny Wurts wrote books that KEPT ME ALIVE. Without them, I would have killed myself as a teen.
More recently some amazing women have helped me become a better person, which I appreciate more than I can adequately describe. Kayla Graves and Alison Stoneklifft built two homes-away-from-home that kept me sane. Crystal Frasier and Lissa Guillet have taken me in many times over the past three years when I needed a safe sofa and a hug. Jessica Price and Amanda Hamon Kunz shared an office, and a big part of their lives, with me for more than a year and trusted me enough to let me see how very, very different the world is for them, which helped me grow a lot.
There are many, many more. Hopefully, I’ll find the right place and the right way to thank them all.
More than one person I know is dealing with the suicide of a friend sometime over the past two weeks.
I didn’t know any of the lost personally. My sadness is second-hand (for my friends and colleagues who are hurting and have suffered loss) and third-hand (I truly do weep for all the lost).
In many cases the suicides were a surprise.
That’s one of the problems with deep, serious, persistent depression.
Life teaches those of us that suffer that we can’t keep talking about it. That if the answer you give to “How are you doing?” is constantly “I’m depressed and thinking of killing myself” you
-A: Get stuck in a lot of extremely painful conversations that don’t help anything
-B: Drive away the very social contact you might need to survive life.
I’m almost always in pain, both physical and mental. Thankfully, many days I am only in a little pain. Sadly, some days I am in a lot of pain.
But I can’t talk about my pain all the time. I don’t have the energy, for one thing.
I don’t want to scare off friendly acquaintances who might someday become friends, for another.
And trust me, constantly being barraged with how crappy a depressed person is feeling will drive some people away. Including people who don’t think it will. Which means my life experience is that when you try to pop in and let me know you AREN’T one of those people, I can’t believe you.
I can’t afford to.
And, I’m sorry to say, 9 times out of 10 if I do confess how bad things are to someone, they make it worse. For example, being told to cheer up, or it’s not so bad, or “hey here’s a thing you can do to improve the situation you are mentioning right now” don’t help.
They are damaging. They are worse than not talking about it. They make a depressed person feel stupid for not being able to fix it, or piss them off that they can’t explain why the problem IS a huge problem.
I do have family and friends I can talk to about the worst feelings, thank goodness. But that trust took years, and a few terrifying risks. It can’t be duplicated quickly.
A good therapist helps, too. And that can be arranged for pretty fast, if I think I need it.
Most of the time “I’m fine” or “Not too bad” are the only answers I *can* give to people who ask how I’m doing. Anything else is a risk and an expenditure of energy I may not be able to afford.
That does, of course, suck for people who want to help. I know that. I’m sorry.
From my own experience, there are only a few things you can do.
If someone is depressed, try to invite them to things. Even if they don’t go to anything you invite them to. As long as they seem happy to be invited, keep inviting. Their depression has them in a prison. Sometimes they get a day pass, and sometimes they don’t. But if they do, it’s helpful to know they COULD go be with people. That they are welcome.
If they do reach out to you listen. Be understanding. They are telling you about the things ruining their lives. Don’t try to make those things sound small, or easily overcome. “That’s rough. I sympathize.” is much, much, much better than “Hey, it’ll all be okay.”
And try to remember, we often can’t ask for help. Literally can not. We are incapable. And you can’t force help on us. But you can let us know, by actions more than just saying so, that you are willing to listen, and willing to be present.
That’s all I have on the topic.
For those of you suffering, please try to find someone who will listen to you. I promise, it can help.
For those of you have have recently suffered loss, my sympathies. It wasn’t your fault. I hope you all have people you can turn to as well, because this kind of pain can be viral.
And well-wishes to you all.