Skip to main content

I AM EDITOR: I Goofed.

When your job is to catch the mistakes, how do you cope when you make one?

Published onOct 16, 2023
I AM EDITOR: I Goofed.

Colin Trumbull

Co-Editor-in-Chief, EON

Senior Manager, Employee Experience

J&J Editorial

“I think, this time for real, I’m going to get fired” was a fear I had and expressed several times to those who were around to listen in the budding years of my career. I am not sure exactly what the root cause of this extreme anxiety was, other than a general feeling of insecurity and inadequacy. But what I knew for certain was, this most recent mistake, whatever that mistake was, was sure to be the final nail in my coffin. Everyone would now recognize me for the fraud that I was, and the jig would be up. Of course, that did not happen. I’m still here, and each mistake has become another lesson to learn. I’m sure everyone else has long forgotten about each of them, but I remember them. Sure, those memories may choose approximately 12:53 am on a Tuesday night to surface when all I’m trying to do is fall asleep, but those mistakes left their mark. However, one thing I have been surprised to realize is that each mistake gradually built my own confidence in a weird way. Each reinforced the notion that maybe I’m not always on thin ice, maybe we can feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them. But, getting to this place of relative confidence was a long and painful process, and it required some leg work on my part. Making mistakes can be safer than we think, but we have to be willing to invest the effort to respond to them correctly.

I think one thing that contributes to this anxiety, particularly within our field, is the perhaps inaccurate but understandable sentiment that our mistakes mean so much more here than they might in another industry. It feels like the stakes are very high, and our mistakes could actively hinder the dissemination of new scientific findings. This is certainly the perspective I held as I started my career as an editorial assistant, finding myself star-struck by my proximity to the scientific elite that I perceived around me. These people have Wikipedia pages, I’d marvel to myself.

This gravitas definitely helped me conclude that my career, perhaps my life, was over when I inadvertently accepted the wrong paper for publication. I’d been going back and forth with two authors for two different submissions, and both sent me new files to upload in the system, one was to be accepted, one was to be sent out for peer review. I was a pro though, no need to triple-check myself. I was cruisin’ and I knew what I was doing, and in fact, I was very proud of myself. This was a total customer service win, I’m helping these two authors, and they may just dedicate their success to me. It’s not out of the question at least. This sentiment was quickly shattered by an email from one of the authors landing in my inbox. “Thanks so much for accepting my paper, this is not my paper though.” My heart fell. I knew I’d screwed up massively, but I couldn’t quite figure out how until I looked at the papers and realized my mistake. I’d grabbed the file and uploaded it to the wrong submission in the system, and since I was so aware, so on-top of the situation, I hadn‘t even needed to double-check which file I’d uploaded before I proceeded. Did I mention that I’m a pro? Surely such a pro couldn’t make a huge mistake.

Oh no. Immediately I felt the panic setting in, you know, that fluttering, flushed feeling in your stomach when this just…Can. Not. Be. Happening? That’s ok, I tried to calm myself, maybe I can just fix this myself without anyone else knowing. Then I remembered the worst bit of information: this paper was published online immediately after acceptance. There was no way I was getting myself out of this one alone. I called my manager, and literally holding back tears, explained what happened. I was not reassured by her little gasp as I relayed the situation, but I couldn’t exactly blame her. This is the one thing we always drilled into our heads that we couldn’t take back. I paused, waiting for an eternity for her to finally reach the correct conclusion: I was done for.

“First. Take a breath. We’re going to get through this.” She reassured me. Yes, this was a serious issue, but there might still be time. We caught it quickly enough that we may still be able to fix this. “Second, draft up an email explaining the situation. Take responsibility for your mistake, own up to it, and we’ll discuss how to fix it.“ Ok, I can do that. “Third. Let’s talk about what you can do to avoid this in the future.”

Ultimately, this situation did work itself out. It was not extremely easy to resolve, but eventually it became water under the bridge; another blip on the radar, nothing more. I did work on implementing some new processes to check myself, and everyone moved on, even though I was certain I would be fired and removed from the industry in disgrace. In the end, this story is not really very interesting. And yet, I think it teaches and reiterates an important lesson for me, one which I think many people have to learn. Mistakes are scary, and we can and should endeavor to minimize them. However, it is much more important to respond to a mistake correctly, versus ensuring that we never make a mistake to begin with. This situation crystallized three points for me that I have carried since:

Breathe. The panic sets in when you make a mistake. Can I fix it? How bad is it? Who knows about it? Am I screwed? Take a moment and pause everything. Breathe and think through the situation. Reflect back on Lindsey Mitchell’s I AM EDITOR piece from our March 2023 issue: are our perceived consequences realistic? When we’re panicking, we’re not really thinking clearly, we’re giving knee-jerk reactions to the stimuli around us, and usually one of the primary things we’re reacting to is our fear. What we need to do is step back, take a breath, and take the time to create a thoughtful and deliberate response to the situation.

Take responsibility. Even if you can shy away from something without anyone noticing, or knowing you’re responsible, it is always best to step up and own your mistake. I should note here that owning up to your mistake is sometimes a nuanced practice, depending on the context of the situation it may not always be clear who should be informed, but you can’t go wrong by at least informing your supervisor and getting their read on the situation. Not only does this give you the best chance to resolve the issue, but it is also the best way for you to walk away from a mistake with your head held high. You may not be proud of the mistake you made, but you can be proud of yourself for owning it. This is admittedly a scary step: you are opening yourself to an angry or unpleasant reaction, and the consequences of your mistake are probably not going to be pleasant. But, it is a critically necessary component of truly correcting the mistake.

Let a mistake refine you, not define you. While in the moment we often consider mistakes as some sort of curse or blemish on ourselves, mistakes can be really powerful gifts as long as you are willing to course correct for the future. Each mistake will add another bit of experience to your mental checklist. It is unreasonable to expect yourself to execute flawlessly: we will make mistakes, we will miss the mark, and we will have chances to learn from our mistakes. You made a mistake, but that mistake will not define you as long as you are willing to invest the time to truly learn and grow from it.

I sort of lied, maybe there are four takeaways from this experience. This entire reflection comes down to a key thing we should all remember professionally. Forgive yourself. Assuming you respond to a mistake correctly, everyone else will forgive you and move on. But you need to take the steps to forgive yourself, too. We’re an industry of self-motivated professionals who strive to do the best work that we can. This also means we’re often far more forgiving of others than we are to ourselves. If you’re like me, giving that same grace to ourselves is the hardest step. To truly learn from and benefit from our mistakes, we must give ourselves the forgiveness we would more readily give others. You deserve it just as much as everyone else does.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?