Mistakes: Managing and Moving On

**Flashback First Friday** Post from September 2012

I’ll never forget the day I felt like relinquishing my interpreter badge and walking out a back door in total defeat. Ever had a day like that? In retrospect, of course, I shouldn’t have taken it so personally; in reality the situation was doomed from the get-go. In a nutshell, I was in open court, trying to interpret a family law hearing for a couple of exes who were arguing, before a judge that let them go on (and on…). Both needed an interpreter, but only one was in the courtroom; the other was appearing telephonically —by speaker phone, no less. Because I wasn’t prepared with the setup I would now employ, my performance was greatly affected; by the end, it felt like the world had come crashing down on me (and my ego), because I knew that I could have done better. It wasn’t much fun to turn and leave, walking by an audience packed with litigants who were also bilingual in my language pair. Fortunately, a colleague was nearby and we were able to talk over what had happened; my badge was now safe, and I knew I would be able to go on.

This very theme of moving on after failure is the basis of the movie Elizabethtown.  I hadn’t seen this flick until recently, and it hit home. (Spoiler alert!) It begins with the main character finding out he has just cost his company about $1 billion. At first, he copes by facing the CEO, and lying to everyone by saying, “I’m okay.” The meanders about his coping with having failed at something he had poured his heart and soul into for a long time. At one point, a friend tells him, “You failed. You failed, you failed, you failed. You failed,” in an attempt to bring him back to reality; he had to just get it out there and say it: Yes, he messed up to the tune of a billion dollars, but he needed to go on. His journey takes him out of his comfortable environment and shows him things he had been taking for granted. The message was that there was a time to mourn, but also a time to get over it and move on.

So what’s the connection here? As linguists with a myriad of ethical codes and standards that place accuracy above all else, we are under a great deal of pressure to get it right the first time, every time, and “never be wrong.” We absolutely know that we’re not perfect, and I think we’re generally willing to accept correction; but because we become accustomed to getting into a groove and flowing well in our task, it can be very frustrating and even disheartening to get tripped up, or do a full-forward sliding somersault trip and fall. None of us is immune to that. According to Henry Ford, however, “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” So, after making a mistake, feeling as if we’ve failed as linguists on a given day, even beyond applying the appropriate ethical remedy, here are three simple steps to pulling ourselves out of the gloom and doom stage.

Take responsibility. Assuming we’ve made a legitimate error, our professional ethics require us to admit the mistake, however difficult it may be. As linguists, we work hard to achieve an excellent performance for reasons that may extend beyond professionalism into the realm of personal pride in what we do. Such deep-rooted feelings and efforts, although they are strengths the majority of the time, may interfere with our ability to publicly acknowledge fault without feeling defensive or distraught. There may even be a bit of a mourning process that we have to go through. Knowing that it’s not an easy task is a first step in taking a deep breath and saying we were wrong, and in the end, I think we’ll be held in even higher regard professionally.

Commit to avoiding future incidents, for one and all. This is a pretty simple step to take, because we can probably identify what went wrong quite easily. Even if we review the professional standards and renew our pledge to apply them, it may still be helpful to share our story with colleagues. By stepping outside our own thoughts and asking for the opinions and guidance of others, we’re not only benefitting our own practice but also helping others to be a bit more aware so as to avoid making our mistake themselves. Proper use of professional forums such as a listserv, Linked In and Facebook can be extremely powerful to support us with advice from experienced and talented individuals.

Shake off the guilt and move on. If we have taken responsibility, made ethical corrections and are actively doing all we can to prevent recurrence of the error, it’s time to stop feeling badly about the failure. After making a mistake, we have to realize that people may not remember the wonderful way we handled ourselves, making the healing process something that has to come from within no matter what others may say.  An exercise in counter-productivity would be to walk with our heads down too far, for too long. Having enough passion for the profession to immediately move on should make the healing process easier, because the next great performance is likely just around the corner to serve as positive motivation. Perhaps if we expect and look forward to that moment, the negative feelings will be easier to shake off.

The beauty of our strength as individuals and as a profession is, I believe, that we’re all capable of moving on and becoming greater fairly quickly because we’re adaptable by nature. At the end of the day, I’d rather have a colleague who is mortified by a little failure than one who is flippant about a big blunder, and I admire a professional attitude that rejects arrogance in favor of humility… even in the face of mistakes. In the words of columnist Arianna Huffington, “we need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”  After all, triumph serves more than just the individual; it’s beneficial for our profession as a whole and for the business of the clients we serve. Although we may be adept at hiding our feelings for the sake of our task, let’s commit to not letting setbacks eat us up from the inside out. We can only be stronger for it.

8 Comments
  • Angie
    Posted at 22:08h, 18 September Reply

    Very inspiring Jen! Thank you for bringing this subject up.

  • Rosemary Dann
    Posted at 16:06h, 02 October Reply

    Advice we should always keep in mind. Thanks, Jen.

    • Jennifer De La Cruz
      Posted at 00:00h, 03 October Reply

      You’re welcome! Admitting we have room to grow is part of growing up, isn’t it? The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Kinda like moving backward in life, like Benjamin Buttons… 🙂

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  • Kathleen M. Morris
    Posted at 19:33h, 06 November Reply

    (Same hearing. ..I had not slept well, and was very tired): Everything proceeded smoothly until the respondent started testifying about the “velorio” of her brother in law, gunned down by the MARA gang in Honduras. Though I know better, I interpreted this as “memorial service”. Immediate objection by bilingual defense attorney, judge’s attempts to clarify the record and back up the interpreter. I quickly inserted myself (speaking as the interpreter) on the court record, and made the interpretion correction to “wake”. All proceeded smoothly, as before. I agree, we are held in much higher regard when we accept responsibiliy for any errors, and move on.

  • Helen Eby
    Posted at 10:48h, 10 November Reply

    I always appreciate your honesty!

    Ernesto Sábato said “life is a rough draft”. That could be said of interpreting. We try to get the next draft better than the previous one, knowing they are all drafts, imperfect. We strive for excellence, and I think the key is thinking of what got us into the situation in the first place:
    Did we know where we were going?
    Did we know the subject matter?
    Had we researched the speakers?
    Did we try to role play interpreting for these speakers with a booth partner?
    Did we YouTube the speakers?
    Did we check the ASTM standard practice for interpreting?
    Are we reading in both languages every day, from several countries?

    All this sounds like work. It is. It helps me get there ready. I don’t have time for all these steps for every assignment but they help me avoid traps.

    And I follow them because I’ve fallen in many, many traps!

  • Vicki Santamaria
    Posted at 18:21h, 10 November Reply

    You are so right about mistakes being opportunities for improving ourselves. My biggest opportunity came about in a very bitter protection order hearing between neighbors. The daughter of the plaintiff (the Spanish speaker) interrupted the proceeding at one point and told the judge that I was against her mother because I made a face when a witness for her mother was called to the stand! I probably did make a face; I have no way of knowing.. But I do know that any expression on my face (as I explained to the judge) was due to the fact that it was late in the day, I was very tired, and it was yet another witness in a long line of witnesses. Fortunately, I’m a staff interpreter and had worked for that particular judge for a number of years. He told the daughter he had confidence in my ability to be a neutral interpreter (and to please sit down and be quiet!)

    As embarrassed as it made me, this incident served to remind me (yet again) of the importance of keeping a neutral expression on my face. It is so hard, yet so important. As court interpreters, we are constantly in the public’s eye, and no matter what our expression, there will always be someone quick to (mis)interpret it.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Jennifer.

  • Marcus Young
    Posted at 20:39h, 31 January Reply

    Take responsibility. Assuming we’ve made a legitimate error, our professional ethics require us to admit the mistake

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