Often it’s the little inconsequential things, like spending an uncomfortable half hour with the woman doing my waxing talking about whether I wanted a boy or a girl because I was too embarrassed to tell her I wasn’t pregnant, I was just fat; or stood in front of an audience of hundreds with a selection of ‘amusing film slides’ illustrating important leadership issues and facing a half hour talk when the first three of the slides had met a silent room and I knew I had another 20 of them to get through; turning up to an evening reception for work in a casual summer dress and open toed sandals when everyone else was in cocktail wear; the new ‘do’ from the hairdresser who was so disappointed with my lack of chatter that she obviously decided to make a conversation piece out of my hair. These stay with me but the more important ones hang over me like a black cloud.
My career is littered with embarrassing incidents, some extremely public and some more private but all of them somehow define me when I start reflecting on what I look back on.
I had cause to do a bit of self-reflection recently when I introduced the NHS graduate trainees for 2013. They were genuinely a stunning group: bright, curious, hopeful and already connected to the passion and purpose of the NHS. I thought back to the 20 odd years ago when I sat in their position, I know I had their passion for the NHS but I know I didn’t have their work ethic then. I know I didn’t work as hard for my education or degree and I know the scheme wasn’t as academically testing then as it now.
Then I thought about how I’d spent the last 20 years, and so many of the images were the embarrassing, toe curling public mistakes I’d made; errors of judgement, misplaced, cruelly negligent comments, misunderstandings, wrong turns. For someone who embarrasses easily I spend a disproportionately little amount of time making sure I don’t put myself in embarrassing positions.
But fortunately, I don’t think my career or contribution to the NHS is judged like that (well not by everyone, of those who might bother to judge it). And I am fortunate for that.
Too many people are judged by their mistakes ; not weighed and measured in the round, balanced out with positive contribution, positive intent, singular or collective responsibility. A career of success suddenly becomes defined by the most recent or most public mistake. The unfairness of this is apparent, with the negative impact huge. Think of all those people who get by on being mediocre and last just because they’ve never done anything significant enough to go horribly wrong. Or people whose bigger contribution is missed because of errors of judgement in one area, those human faults and foibles we all have but for some are more public.
So my wish for the trainees is that they go out there and make a splash – make a difference, put yourself out there, do the rash exciting thing and make mistakes, errors, mishaps and embarrassments which are all judged against the huge and positive impact you’ve made. The sums will add up and you will be seen to be a good thing. You might look back and be embarrassed by some of your efforts, but nothing is more embarrassing than having made no effort at all.