Friday, August 28, 2009


When you're in charge of things, you have to do two things that make other people upset with you. You have to make decisions, and you have to take responsibility for screw-ups.

I got in trouble in the latter way this morning. A person in my unit was the victim of a serious screw-up. Ultimately I and my fellow administrators were responsible, and when I got the call this morning from this justifiably very upset person, I didn't hesitate at all to abase myself and accept full blame.

These unpleasant moments are going to come up for anyone in my position every once in a while. The question is how you are going to respond. Are you going to take the failure personally and feel the paralyzing fear that comes from knowing you've made a big mistake?

I know that feeling really well. Like most of my students, I've gotten where I am today by pleasing people. Therefore the most devastating feeling I regularly experience is when people are unhappy with me. It's a queasy feeling in my gut, a dizzy sensation in my head, an anxiety that keeps me up at night.

If you're in a position where you're bound to tick people off, you can't be incapacitated by this feeling every couple of weeks (or days). So you have to learn how to take responsibility for problems without taking them personally, as it were. Not that you don't resolve to do better, not that you don't try to make up for the error, not that you don't sincerely regret the problem and sympathize with those affected. But at some level, you have to externalize the consequences. The outcome must be manifested in remedial action, not in personal stress and recriminations.

It's hard not to wonder if my ability to avoid stomach-churning and nail-biting over this signals that my heart is hardening. From my point of view, having spent my life at the mercy of others' opinions, a smidge more control over my own self-esteem doesn't sound so bad. As long as the others whom I wrong don't notice a difference in what I actually do about it, as opposed to how I feel about it.

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