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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

I Made a Mistake, Now What?

It was week two and I was hurtling down the freeway to my office, feeling sick to my stomach, with a twitch under my eye. I had gotten the position I’d been dreaming about; it came with better pay and advancement opportunities.  For six months I’d stayed in touch with the hiring manager until there was an opening. When I got the job, I thought I had it made. The work was something I knew how to do and enjoyed. There was a big good-bye party to wish me well and I even got presents. My future was bright.


But after one day with my new boss and colleagues…oy. In my determination to leave my previous employer, I had overlooked flaws that were (in retrospect) apparent during the interview process. It was when I said yes to the job offer that the eye twitch started; the body is wise. When my brain caught up, I wasn’t sure what to do. How could I quit a job that I had worked so hard to get so soon after I arrived?


Former Professor Emeritus at George Washington University, Jerry B. Harvey, is known for the psychological phenomenon called Abilene Paradox. In a nutshell, it states that groups of people will take actions that no one individual is in agreement with because they don’t want to rock the boat. While we do this in groups, we do this with ourselves as well. We have an internalized chorus telling us what we can or can’t do.


In the video “The Abilene Paradox,” an example of this dynamic is presented by a student. After class, he approaches Professor Harvey with a personal problem. He’s supposed to get married the next weekend but realizes he doesn’t love his fiancé. When Harvey asks the obvious, “Why don’t you call it off?” the young man enumerates the reasons: the invitations have been sent, the bridal gown purchased, and all the arrangements have been made and paid for. His final excuse is, “Her mother loves me, she’d die of a broken heart. I’m too young to be a murderer!”


As for my dilemma, I’d been talking up the possibility of this new job for months. When I got it, my parents were proud, my friends excited. There was no financial safety net if I were to leave. The reasons to stick it out were huge. You have your own examples of times you had invested effort, money, hopes, dreams or love to the degree that you glossed over obvious drawbacks. Then if what you wanted so badly doesn’t turn out, it feels impossible to back away. Maybe you, too, made a poor job decision or found yourself in an ill-fated marriage. It’s hard enough to find yourself crosswise with a decision but figuring out how to say, “I made a mistake,” or “I’m having second thoughts,” or “I need out” is sometimes worse.


Our internal critics are well known voices. In fact, your mother’s diatribe shouting in your head may not be an exaggeration. Yes, you might disappoint others, but this is your life. Are you willing to be authentic with yourself? Are you willing to tone down your own berating messages? We’re very good at beating ourselves up so take a breath and be kind to yourself. You were operating with what you knew at the time and it’s possible you ignored clues—but maybe there weren’t any. None of this makes you a failure.


Since you’re still breathing, you can make a different decision even if it’s messy to execute. You are allowed to be human and live a life that zigs and zags. How do you know what you want if you don’t know what you don’t want? Running into a wall gives a clear message, “Not this!” What are some of the walls you’ve run into? Did you take action as a result or vow to make different decisions in the future? What have you learned?


I turned in my notice after two and a half months in that lousy job. The sick stomach and eye twitch vanished the evening I drove out of the company’s parking lot for good. With hindsight, I realize the experience wasn’t a mistake because it taught me a lot. I had a bird’s eye view of a very different work world and culture. I learned how many people feel stuck where they don’t want to be and how they envied my agency to leave. I figured out what was important to me about colleagues. I was catapulted into my own consulting business where I had interesting adventures with many different companies and organizations. That miserable two and a half months was what I needed to show me where I belonged. Twenty-three years later things changed again and I closed my business to embark on a different employment opportunity.


Of course, the more you have invested in a job or a relationship, the harder it is to depart. If you’re close to retirement or vested in the company, it’s tough. They don’t call them golden handcuffs for nothing. But if you know you’re in the wrong situation, please notice what you are paying in terms of your health and integrity.


Only you know if you need a change. If you do, I’m wishing you well as you make your brave decisions.


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