I know it’s good to learn from your mistakes, but lately I have been thinking that I really don’t need to be learning quite so much. It seems as if every day I am noticing new mistakes of my own making. Performing tasks in an inefficient order. Making unwarranted assumptions about what other people will do. Assuming that my statements to colleagues were clear and unambiguous, when in fact they were incomplete and misleading. It’s not just at work, but it sure seems to be mostly at work, probably because that’s where I spend most of my weekday waking hours.
Part of it has got to be simply the pace of work life in comparison to home life. At work I’m meeting individually with students, I’m contacting employers by phone and by e-mail, I’m writing professional development materials, I’m delivering presentations and workshops to groups, I’m publishing online every week, I’m editing and commenting on application materials — all that and more, usually with three or four things going on at once. Of course there are going to be things at work that I will wish I had done differently — I get more shots at regret there than I do at home. At home I rarely have to do more than two things at once, and one of them is usually just conversation. Besides, home is usually inherently less demanding than work. It’s hard to watch Netflix in error (“You know, this might be easier to follow if I faced towards the TV instead of away!”) or to take the garbage out badly.
The upshot is that, while I truly love my job, there are days when I feel like I must be the most hapless employee in a 30-mile radius. Even letting a typo pass can trigger a wave of paranoid insecurity, the kind of fretful self-doubt that can make you wonder if a job you love isn’t really just a job you hate. This is particularly painful when I consider that none of my previous jobs has ever made me feel so mistaken so frequently. Did I pick the wrong job? Am I just growing incompetent with age?
To be fair, though, this job does seem more busy than any other job I’ve held, so I have more opportunity for error. Even if that were just an illusion, I can say for sure that I am more engaged in my work than ever before, so that I am more alert to whatever mistakes do arise. I would like to think that that is what is really going on here. We don’t learn just from making mistakes; plenty of people, at all levels of work, made egregious mistakes and never even recognize them. You also have to notice the mistake, so that you can figure out what went wrong and how you can prevent it from going wrong again. Maybe I am feeling mistaken so frequently not because I have actually become incompetent, but simply because I am noticing things more than I used to. Because I like my job, and I want to do it well.
There’s a bit of a paradox here: the more you care about a job, the more likely you are to notice your own “mistaken” behavior in that job — not just big things, but little ones, too — and the greater the danger that you will come to believe, perhaps unfairly, that you are not competent in the job. Keep this in mind the next time you feel like a dolt in the office. It’s still probably a good idea to ask yourself: Am I a dolt? But if you look a little more objectively at the situation, it might well be that feeling a little self-consciously underconfident is actually a good sign — a sign that you care about results there, and that you are always looking for new ways to better those results.