after the crash

humanoid crash test dummy ashamed

When is the last time you royally screwed up?  I mean really made a full-blown mess of things? If you have a soul, the story that follows will make you cringe.

Get comfortable. And then get ready to get uncomfortable.

I’m embarrassed to recount it even now (I quite literally just shuddered bringing it all back to mind). You see, this uncomfortable, cringe-inducing story of utter failure … is about me.  And it’s still as fresh as a steaming pile of –

(Well, let’s just say it’s pretty fresh.)

Back in the ‘90s, I mentored a kid named Steve. Steve and I shared a lot back then. The best and the worst of times.  But Steve is no longer a kid.  In fact, he’s somehow gotten to be almost as old as I am. It’s all very odd to me how this could have happened.  He’s a real live grown-up now, with a successful A/V company that’s grown from just him in 2005 to having a full team of 15 or 20, doing major high-profile gigs.

Well, through the book release and the revitalized focus on the blog, Steve and I have reconnected in some new ways. A few months back, during one of our conversations, he asked, “Hey, would you ever consider coming down to Maryland, observing my team in action, and then doing some workshops toward helping us better handle the types of challenges that face us in our particular roles?”

I was happy not only to come and present some of The Best Advice So Far to Steve’s team, but to visit with him and his wife Val for the first time in a decade or more, since I was a groomsman in their wedding.

We began almost immediately making plans. I would come down on a Friday, observe the rehearsal of the symphony orchestra, attend the performance on Saturday, then do final preparations on Sunday and present on Monday. Steve found a good airfare and bought the ticket, sending me the itinerary.  We started talking about accommodations, car rental, preliminary thoughts on the talks I might give while there.  Steve was even gracious enough to ask what particular food I might like while there.  It was all going rather swimmingly.  We were both getting excited as the event weekend drew closer.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I peeked quickly at the email that contained the itinerary and noticed a snag. I shot Steve a message: “I just realized we planned this thing over Mother’s Day weekend!”

Steve replied: “Oh no! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.  Do you want to try to move it?”

But it was not a huge deal.  I told him I would just move my plans with my own mom up a few days and all should be well.

Last weekend, it seemed to me that Steve was starting to go beyond courtesy to actually fretting: asking a ton of questions about small details, double checking how many bags I thought I’d have, reminding me about possible wardrobe inclusions.  I didn’t want him to stress out over it.  I continued to assure him that whatever might need adjusting could be adjusted after I got there.

The next day, which was last Friday, I got a text from Steve around 1:30 PM:

Hey, I’m at baggage claim B3

Oh, that Steve and his zany antics.  It took me a minute to catch on to his joke. Then I smirked wryly and texted back:

HA HA

Steve replied:

???

OK, well, apparently he’d texted the wrong person then.  I called him.

“I hope you’re joking, Steve. I’m not in until next weekend, remember? Mother’s Day weekend? You’re there a week early!”

There was a beat of silence, then, “Uh … Erik?  I hope you’re joking, because I’m at the airport and the itinerary I sent you – which you then sent back to me – says you’re supposed to be here today. RIGHT NOW.”

Steve has always had a dry sense of humor and can play things out pretty well.  But you can’t kid a kidder.

I calmly brought up the email with itinerary to call Steve’s bluff.

Only he wasn’t joking.  There was no joke.  There was the itinerary, plain as day, screaming out in black and white that I was supposed to be in Baltimore at that very moment.

Only I wasn’t.  I was walking around in my underwear and a t-shirt at home.

My head spun. No really.  I know people say that for effect, but I actually felt dizzy.  I had entered the Twilight Zone.  The facts were clear.  But my brain could not come to grips with the reality of them. I HAD MISSED MY PLANE.

Steve was clearly as dismayed as I was. “Can you get here on a later flight?” he asked, still incredulous.

But I couldn’t. Not only would I never make the airport before the symphony rehearsal, I’d made other immovable plans for that weekend, including having promised to help several kids with final exams, papers and reports that were due in a matter of days. And on top of it all – I flat out wasn’t prepared. Thinking I was not leaving for a week, I hadn’t made any materials. Not one slide for my presentations. Not one graphic.

I was dumbstruck. How on earth had I made such a massive mistake? Why had I thought it was Mother’s Day weekend instead? How could I have botched something this important so badly?

I could only repeat how sorry I was. Steve was flat. “Well, I’m going to head home and start dealing with this.”

As the initial shock lost its hard edge, the reality of the damage I’d caused began to set in. My heart sank. This symphony orchestra only comes in every couple of months.  An entire team of people had moved their schedules to attend the Monday presentation. They’d been promised pay for it.

Then I thought about Steve and his wife, Val – all the work they must have done to have me in. Cleaning. Setting up the room.  Shopping.  Emotionally preparing their kids for an extended visitor.  I even learned from my best friend, Dib, that they’d called her to ask what kind of treat they could leave on my pillow to make things extra special.

It was hands-down the biggest gaffe I can remember having made in at least several decades. I was more than embarrassed. I was mortified.

OK, pause.  Did you cringe?  I don’t know if I could ever really explain in words how bad I felt, but it was something exquisitely awful.

Have you ever been there?  Maybe you truly didn’t mean to, but you just really made a huge mess of things. You hurt people you care about in the process.  You felt their disappointment in you.  And there was no way out.  It just was what it was, and you had to endure the sadness and shame, knowing that no matter how you cut it, this was your own damn fault.

A full-scale crash and burn.

What do you do?  How do you recover?  Do you just wait for time to pass and hope the wretched feeling goes away?  That people will forgive you (or even talk to you again)?  See, it’s all well and good to dole out positive advice in a book like The Best Advice So Far, but how do you really apply it in a situation like this?

I have to tell you, in this occasion, I really did take my own advice to heart. It was good to have it to fall back on when I really needed it.  Things like …

You always have a choice. (Chapter 1)

Being miserable is a choice. (Chapter 2)

You have to start from where you are, not from where you wish you were. (Chapter 4)

Motive is more important than behavior or outcome. (Chapter 18)

Focus on the person and not the problem. (Chapter 24)

Putting awkwardness out there on the table by calling it what it is immediately takes most of the awkwardness out of it. (Chapter 27)

Apologize less and mean it more. (Chapter 28)

Worry serves no purpose but to ruin the present. (Chapter 33)

When negative emotions are strong, think in specifics rather than extremes. (Chapter 34)

Don’t color the present with the past. (Chapter 36)

Honest to Pete, I’m not just exploiting this situation as a sales pitch to get you to buy the book. I’m telling you the absolute truth: I use this stuff.  And in this moment of feeling like an utter failure, wallowing right in the middle of the mess I’d made, I reached for it.  I put it into action.

And it helped.

Me.

The author.

Why? Because, as I point out at the start of the book – right in the Preface – truth is truth.  And I didn’t invent it.  It applies to me every bit as much as it has ever applied to anyone.

So I gave my sincere apologies to Steve.  I wrote him and Val an apology letter, expressing how thankful I was for their generosity and acknowledging how much I know my mess-up must have disappointed and upset them. (In fact, Steve confessed that they had cried.) I asked if I could write a letter of explanation and apology to Steve’s team to take that awkwardness off of him as the boss, which he allowed me to do.

And do you know what? Steve (who’s read the book, as well) made similar choices.

He shared how he was feeling about it.  He decided that there was nothing more he could have done, yet he didn’t really blame me: “It just happened,” he said. He used the weekend to go kayaking with his family and enjoyed the beautiful weather.

And we’ve rescheduled the visit and workshop for later, in June.  We’re already getting excited again.

We realized no one got cancer or died.

We made good choices.

We decided not to let it steal an otherwise perfectly good weekend.

We’ve laughed and joked together since then.

And so, in the end, we lost perhaps a couple of hours over the ordeal, instead of days or weeks.  Or years.

Or a friendship.

The fact of the matter is that we are all human, subject to failure. Sometimes those failures are bigger than others.  But we still have a choice, from that point forward. And those choices directly impact our happiness and peace level, our recovery time, our relationships, and our future opportunities.

The time to internalize good life advice and a plan of action is not in the middle of a crash.  It’s before it ever happens, so that it is right there in your mind and soul when things get ugly.

How can you prepare now, before your next crash?

(P.S. Thank you, Steve and Val – and the entire Omega team –  for being cool with this fool.)

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

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