“I was wrong.” Three words that are really hard to say…especially in public. In the business community and the marketplace it takes courage to admit mistakes.
A Famous “Oops”
One of the most famous business mistakes came when Coca-Cola tried to retire the “old Coke” and release a “new Coke” flavor almost exactly thirty years ago in April 1985. They shocked the world with a reinvention of their revered flavor. The company had spent millions in market research, taste tests, and focus groups and were certain it was time for a new approach. The backlash was overwhelming. In short order the company management realized they had miscalculated and three months later admitted their mistake and brought back what is now called “classic Coke.”
Editor and Agent Errors
Ask any group of editors or agents about their biggest “miss” and you’ll hear amazing stories. One of my favorites was an editor who worked for a major publishing company back in the 90s. One day that company had a meeting to consider a new product presentation. The editor recalled the consensus around the room was “Talking vegetables? What a dumb idea!” And that publisher (along with many others) turned down VeggieTales.
There are myriad of famous rejections in literary history. Everything from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings to the first five manuscripts by Stephen King.
When a Writer is Wrong
I’m not talking about incorrect research or a poorly constructed sentence. For the writer it can move into some difficult and quite personal matters.
1) Picked the wrong topic for their non-fiction book. One that had already been saturated in the marketplace
2) Didn’t listen to their agent or other counsel that their current work-in-progress novel wasn’t marketable
3) Expecting too much from their publisher and exploding all over their publisher’s inboxes while expressing displeasure
4) Blame Gaming… Blame the editor. Blame the agent. Blame the publisher. Blame the bookseller. Blame the economy. Blame Amazon. Blame the reader. Blame God (!?)
When to Admit it
Donald Keough, the president of Coca-Cola at the time of the 1985 re-branding debacle, talks about that event in his book The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. He writes “It pays to admit that you make a mistake, to admit that you are not infallible.”
As hard as it may be to admit “failure” in this business, sometimes it can be the best thing to do.
We don’t like to acknowledge that we failed. We prefer to present a picture of never-ending success, don’t we?
We don’t like to realize and confess that we lost our temper.
Or that we were too harsh in our criticism of something.
Or that we were impatient with someone who genuinely was asking for help.
Or that we let our ego get the best of us.
Or that we failed to listen carefully.
Or that we made someone else mad because of our unyielding position.
But when should we reveal such weakness? To walk around with “mea culpa” tattooed on our forehead isn’t the answer. In fact, that can end up being a form of false humility.
Obviously if you know you have wronged someone it is important to set things right, if possible. Clearing the air and requesting forgiveness are vital.
For most writers. In relation to their writing career and calling, the conversation is within. A soul searching conversation where admission of failure is generally viewed as weakness or “giving up.” Instead it may be better to see it as one of the foundations of learning through mistakes. Learn from them, recognize them as mistakes, and shape the next decision with wisdom and discernment.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.
(James 3:13; Philippians 2:3; Matthew 23:12; Proverbs 16:3; Jeremiah 29.11; Habakkuk 2:3)
Prayer is important in every aspect of my life. Thanks for these great scriptures.
I think entering contests has helped me learn what I’m doing wrong. I want to write stories that will honor God, and I keep studying the craft and trying to learn from my mistakes. I love it when God gives me a light bulb moment, and your post today is a light bulb. Thanks!
An Apollo mission to the moon was filled with course corrections. It’s not just healthy, but essential to some enterprises to anticipate error and deal with it soon, while the adjustment can be most effective.
What a great comparison with the Apollo mission. We tend think of those missions as “fire and forget.” Just like a lot of writers who think their first draft is genius and resent any opinion to the contrary.
My first draft of today’s blog post was full of typos, poor metaphors, rabbit trails, incorrect POV, and incomplete thoughts.
Despite that, I resisted the input from someone who pointed out two of those errors during a review of the material before it was published. I must now quote myself, “I was wrong.” I should have been living the message of my own post!
I apologized and realized I was being an example of a writer who was too sensitive to critique. Nothing like being the poster-boy for the cliche “practice what you preach.”
Of, course we are often wrong. Perhaps my novel will never be published. Perhaps I wrote in error. Perhaps a new business launch was a little too late to the market. Every failure teaches and fortunately, if one thing fails, we can move on. The difficult part is recognizing when we have utterly failed and must turn our backs on something we in which we have invested much.
Wow. Such a good word. I have been wrong so many times. It is easier to admit it to God than to admit it to the ones I wronged or to admit the thing I was wrong about. Thank you for a timely blog.
That was a gemstone today. I also loved the comment about course correction. Thank you.
Thank you, Steve. I needed this reminder.
I have lived a long time; made many mistakes; failed. God uses it all. He shapes us through our failures and reorients us. Thank you for reminding us He has a plan for each of us–a future and a hope. Your blogs are strengthening to me, Steve. I should have offered you thanks before now. Thanks!
Love the portion of scripture, “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” What thought provoking words!
Steve, wise words for all of us. Authors, when we suffer rejection, immediately jump to the conclusion that the person rejecting us was wrong…and they could be. They might also be right. The tough part is deciding which it is.
Thanks for the reminder.
Recognizing when I’m on the wrong path isn’t fun, but it can be the preparation for choosing the right one. Years ago, I was just starting a new research project with a new technician. We had performed about a dozen experiments to narrow down the right path for the research. When I wrote the report describing what we had learned, my tech shook his head when he read it. Then he smiled as he told me that he had thought we were only failing. There’s a lot of “re-searching” in research.
I always thought there was a good life lesson there. I’ve only truly failed when I give up trying, and that trying may involve a major change in path. So many forks in the road, but prayer can always help us find a good one that can lead us on to a better one and finally to the best one of all. It also helps tremendously to have people who know more than me share what they know. I’m thankful for the many helpful and encouraging things I’ve learned from the folks writing and posting to this blog.
I love when God reminds me through the words of others. Thank you for your wisdom and perspective.
Steve, terrific post!I The section titled “When a writer is Wrong” was particularly amusing. Many millennia ago in the performance of one of my corporate duties I found myself acting in a job that seems somewhat akin to yours.
It was called “Loan Officer”. The public shared their hopes and dreams. Most were decent, sincere and hardworking people that I could respect and admire. I would always extend every consideration to the fullest for these folks. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only criteria on which their financing proposal could be considered. No matter how much I liked and wanted to help some of them certain guidelines, criteria and quality had to be met, much the same as in a book proposal. Of those declined, when asked, I would tell them in which areas they could improve so that next time they might be successful. Most of the time this was well taken.
These were cordial, usually kept on a professional level and quite frankly, routine “pitches” for their proposal. You must have heard tens of thousands of pitches for book proposals under somewhat like conditions. Each and every one of these I don’t remember that well, you may not either.
On the other hand, some applications, business plans, pro forma projections and the like do contain some of the most blatant disregard for quality as well as some of the most creative fiction I have ever read. ( remember the old finance adage “every deal looks good on paper”) Much of it was so obtuse that it was quite entertaining in a humorous way. It is quite a valuable asset to have the mental stamina to suppress spontaneous outbursts of hysterical laughter at all times. After all, in those days at the office you could hear a pin drop, people spoke in hushed tones and there was a certain level of decorum to be maintained at all times.
Have you ever had a book proposal that demanded to be declined ever go so far that family and/or friends of the applicant that were not even at the “pitch” felt a need to contact you. Sometimes this would be days after with their unsolicited (negative/ nasty/ ugly) opinion regarding your judgment. To me, this only served as a confirmation that I made the correct decision. I’ve heard there is a little known consideration in the application process that sometimes carries an immense amount of weight in a business decision. It is called the “aggravation factor”. Have you ever heard of this phenomena?
Yes, it is hard to say “I was wrong” in public; it is even harder to say it to those closest to you, especially when you’re looking at them right in the face. However, the latter is good practice for the former.
An excellent article, Steve. We in heart of Blue Bell ice cream-land are not condemning their mistake, but cheering for their safe and successful return.