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Sharing Failures Leads to Learning Opportunities for All

December 19, 2018As we begin to close up shop in 2018, it feels right to take one last look at what happened, what we accomplished, and what we can improve on for 2019. Before we go to be with family and friends, it’s worth it to take a moment to reflect on what we want to do differently in the year to come. It’s time to own up to mistakes and to look forward to the fresh start that a new year brings.

Last year I became friends with a married couple, both of whom are professors. He was outgoing and boisterous. She was quieter, seemingly sweet, and small in stature. When talking with her about when they started teaching at the college, I said, “It’s wonderful that the school was able to do a spousal hire for you and find you a position!” I knew immediately from her hesitation that I had it wrong. She got the initial tenure-track position, and the school was able to do a spousal hire for her husband.

Why did I make that assumption? Partly it was because so many prominent positions in academia are occupied by men. But certainly, it was also because of her gender and because she doesn’t match the “typical” profile of an academic rock star.  

At that moment, I failed. I failed to question my assumptions and failed to stop myself from putting my foot in my mouth. But you know what? The world didn’t end. My new friend got a laugh out of it, and I learned something about myself. And I am certain that next time when I am in the same or a similar situation, I’m far more likely to check my assumptions, ask questions, and listen.

Every day, I strive to be inclusive, to be an ally, to use words that create inclusive environments where people feel that they are valued and that they belong. But clearly, I don’t always succeed! Even more importantly, when I make missteps and mistakes—when I fail—I strive to not hide but to use it as an opportunity for reflection and learning.

And I’m not alone. Other thought leaders here at Catalyst have acted on biases and made assumptions. Below are two of their stories which we can also learn from. The first comes from my colleague Allyson Zimmerman. The second is a Catalyst employee who preferred to remain anonymous.


“Hiring a Mini-Me”

Early on in my career, I was asked to hire a consultant. I picked someone whom I thought was perfect–not only on paper was she qualified, but I thought would be a great fit overall. After I hired her, I sent her to meet my manager. They got on well, but my manager later asked if I had taken a good look at who I hired. Of course, I replied, but I didn’t really get what she was asking.

Then after a moment or two (definitely longer than I wish to admit), I realized that I had hired “mini-me.” Not only did we look alike (she was the newer, younger, thinner, improved version of me), but we also had the same nationalities, same interests (yoga, cats), etc. The most embarrassing “a-ha” was that we had the same first name. And I did not see it. She was well loved by the team but did not last very long as a consultant. This “a-ha” taught me that sometimes awareness does not come in a perfect, neat, little package, even if we are working in this space with good intentions.

Learning often happens when we mess up, usually in a humbling, sometimes embarrassing way. And that’s okay too—we have to allow people to make mistakes in order to learn.


“Reduced Hours, Increased Assumptions”

I was talking to a woman around my age or younger. I mentioned that I’ve been working reduced hours since I had my son. She said, “me, too!” and we talked about how she spends her time on her off days.

I usually do not like to ask other people’s parental status unless they volunteer the information because it can be a sensitive topic. But that day I ended up asking “So, how old is your child?”

I felt so embarrassed when she looked confused and said, “I don’t have kids. Maybe someday...”

I don’t know how she took my question, but I was embarrassed that I assumed someone who is working reduced hours has kids when anyone could utilize that type of work schedule.


Bottom Line: We All Make Mistakes

Even folks with the best intentions can sometimes get swept along by their biases. What starts as a lack of self-examination, however, can have consequences large and small. Learning from our mistakes goes a long way toward preventing them in the future. I hope that you’ll make next year one of intentional interactions and inclusion.

Feel free to share your own stories in the comments and allow us all to learn from them. 

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.