One of the people in the group of nine I was supervising had an unhealthy (my opinion) obsession with perfection. She just oozed stress when faced with something new. I don’t know if she had lost a job in the past due to a mistake or something but she just seemed to always be on the edge. However, by company standards, she was a great employee – efficient, fast, reliable, and accurate.
Her desire was to earn more money and move into a more senior position. As her supervisor, I wanted to help make that happen and to help her to feel good about learning new things. I also wanted her to relax a bit (in retrospect, that was probably more for me).
One day she gave me some work to look at and I told her it was great. I returned the work with a little post-it that said “remember, it’s ok to make a mistake.” Much to my surprise she attached that post-it to the side of her cubicle.
I felt we had gotten to the point where she was okay with my expectations – that I expected her to make some mistakes when doing something new because it is how she would learn. Making lots of mistakes (practicing) in a small area is how one becomes an expert in that area, right?
So here was a noob being told it’s okay to make some mistakes while doing something new and across from her a veteran employee making more mistakes than her. He’d been there longer than most in the department – me included. Somehow he had slipped through the cracks. He had become a problem. How did this happen? At some point he had crossed some line where mistakes were not expected – at least not with any level of frequency.
I’m reminded of this situtation because last week I sat in a parent/teacher conference to address my son’s poor performance in a <irony>research</irony> class. I sat and thought (as I have many times before) about this ok-to-fail, not-ok-to-fail quagmire. I simply cannot consistently spoon-feed a teenager throughout high school and hope that he’ll do okay in college and at work right? At some point I have to let him make mistakes and take the conseqences. He knows that he is expected to make mistakes and he knows what is expected of him at school. But for this particular subject, he has crossed the ‘noob’ line. His mistakes should happen less frequently. I guess he needs a post-it note too. I just can’t think right now what that should say.