I’m terrified of making mistakes at my first job

A reader writes:

I am a big fan and long-time reader of your blog. I am thrilled to say that after following your tips I have been able to land my first real job! I am very excited as I am just about to graduate from college (tomorrow!) and I couldn’t imagine a better position for starting my career. I find the work I will be doing both exciting and meaningful and I love my company’s culture (I was picky about making sure I found the right fit). What’s more, after accepting their offer I was pleasantly surprised to receive several emails from my boss and several of my new coworkers congratulating me and welcoming me to the team.

Despite all of this, I do have one huge fear: making a mistake. I understand that this fear is irrational as even senior employees make mistakes, but I suffer from imposter syndrome and the thought of making any type of mistake absolutely terrifies me. I have previously worked as a research assistant at my university and as an intern in the industry and have made very few mistakes because I am so afraid of messing up. The thing is, I want to be able to grow in this role and hopefully with the company and I know that making mistakes is crucial to the process. I think what scares me the most is the thought of disappointing my new boss who has so kindly and graciously taken a chance by giving me (a new grad) the opportunity to join the team.

In order to make sure I can get a head start, I have already reached out to her by email to ask if there are any resources or literature I can read up on before starting so that I can hit the ground running.

My two questions are:

1) Is there anything else I should be doing to ensure I start off on the right foot and make a good first impression with the team?

2) When I do make a mistake, how should I handle feedback? I know I won’t act visibly upset or shut down, but I know I’ll be mortified if I receive negative feedback. I’m sure that the fact that I have a tendency to over-apologize won’t help (I’m guilty of the chronic “so sorry to bother you but I have a question”). I want to come off as mature and receptive while effectively being able to communicate what I will do to improve. Unfortunately, I have never really had the opportunity to practice these skills as I never received negative feedback in either of my past roles so I’m having some difficulty figuring out the appropriate verbiage.

I have terrible news for you: You are going to make mistakes! Lots of them. We all do. It’s normal and fine.

This isn’t even really news, because your letter makes it clear you already know that, and know that you can’t learn and grow without mistakes, which is good. That makes this easier to tackle than if at some level you thought people worthy of their jobs never mess up.

But I wonder if you’ve really internalized that. Knowing intellectually that mistakes are part of the job is one thing, and really believing that at a visceral level is another. So I’m curious what you’ll find if you really probe into your fear of mistakes — what’s that fear really of? Looking incompetent? Letting down your boss (as you mention)? Being unmasked (to others and maybe to yourself) as actually incompetent? I’d explore what underlying beliefs are there, because if you really know mistakes are normal and necessary, I’m not sure you’d be so terrified of them. You might find that deep down, you don’t believe they’re normal after all.

But since you identified disappointing your boss as one part of the fear, let’s talk a little about that. When I’m hiring and managing a new grad, here’s what doesn’t disappoint me: routine mistakes as they learn the job and organization. I expect those. I’m surprised if I don’t see those. I might even be a little alarmed (what might I not be seeing?). Here’s what does disappoint me: A person who works excessively slowly or cautiously because they’re paralyzed by fear of getting something wrong. For real — that’s a big problem and can hold people back from (a) being as productive as they need to and (b) growing into more responsibility. That’s what I’d work on internalizing.

So … when the inevitable mistake happens, how should you respond to feedback about it? You’re right that you shouldn’t over-apologize! What your manager will want to see is that you’re processing the feedback and will be able to incorporate it into your work going forward. Some good responses are:

* “I see what you’re saying. I’ll correct this and make sure to do it that way in the future.”
* Or, if you don’t understand: “Thanks for letting me know! I’m not sure I completely understand and I want to make sure I do. Can you say more about what you mean by X?”
* “Thank you. I’m going to read over these changes and make notes about what to remember for next time.”
* “I appreciate you telling me! I’ll make sure to do it that way next time.”
* “I’ll make the change! Can I ask — I had approached it this way because I was thinking X. Is that not the right way to look at it?”

That’s it! You don’t need a long defense — just a sincere interest in getting it right going forward.

Only when something is very serious do you need more than this. For example, if you make an error that costs the company significant money or upsets an important client, you’d want your response to indicate that you understand the seriousness of the mistake. In that case, you might say something like, “This shouldn’t have happened, and I take responsibility for it. I should have checked with you before telling the client that. I got focused on wanting to get them a quick answer, but that was the wrong thing to prioritize. Going forward, I’ll be vigilant about touching base with you on anything sensitive before I get back to a client, and I think that will prevent anything similar from happening again.”

Practice saying phrases like these out loud! An awful lot of people don’t handle mistakes gracefully, especially when they’re new to the work world, and mastering this now will be hugely helpful to you in your career.

As for starting off on the right foot: Listen, take notes, know you won’t remember everything, and don’t freak out when you feel overwhelmed because that’s normal. More here and here.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 197 comments… read them below }

  1. 5 month mommy*

    One more thing that I learned the hard way: If you make a mistake and you know it, but your boss doesn’t yet know it, explain and admit it immediately. I’ve found taking responsibility (and then using Allison’s language about the steps you’ll take to make sure it doesn’t happen again) typically ends up with everyone being thankful that you were so forthright. If you try to cover up your mistakes, they come back around to bite you.

    1. MuseumChick*

      This. It can be scary but this is the best advice to follow. The best thing you can do early in your career is to build a reputation for taking ownership of your mistakes. This in turns builds a reputation for trustworthiness. That snowballs into your superiors trusting you with more and in more things (clearly there are more factors but this is a huge one), which of course allows your work on more interesting projects with more responsibility.

      Or at least that has been my experience!

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        So much this and the lead comment! Being self-aware goes a long way with managers, and it wins trust because people believe that you’re honest/straight-shooting and understand how your role affects others.

      2. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

        This so much. It also helps build in a sense that if you make a mistake that you own it, so when there does come a time when you’re like, “That wasn’t my mistake, here’s actually where the blame lies” since you’ve already built a reputation of owning your mistakes your peers and bosses are more likely to believe you. (There are cases when having the “blame” appropriately placed DOES make a difference.)

        Owning my mistakes has been one of the hardest and best decisions I’ve made for my career. I hate admitting that I’ve messed up. But going to my boss and saying that I have messed up and here’s how I’m changing myself to avoid this mistake in the future has paid dividends over the amount of awkward/embarrasment I paid into the initial conversation.

        1. Maria Lopez*

          Also, when you tell the truth you don’t need a good memory. Meaning, you never need to get your lies straight.

      3. Indigo a la mode*

        Absolutely. It’s awful picking up the phone with bad news. But any reasonable boss isn’t going to chew you out–they’re going to coach you. I mean, I have *really* messed up before. I dropped the ball on a website I was designing for the CEO’s sister’s company. After a call from his sister, the CEO called me in for a meeting. I was in knots the whole day waiting for it–but when I got there, he only asked me three things: “What happened?” I explained honestly. “What did you learn?” I told him. “What can we do to prevent this problem from happening again?” I gave him a couple of solutions I’d thought of.

        And that was it. He commended me on thinking it through, said the results I’d scrambled to finish up looked great, and sent me on my way. I finished the project, the client was happy, I’ve adopted the improvements I brainstormed effectively, and there’s no black mark on my reputation or my work.

        OP, owning up to mistakes feels awful, but as long as you’re transparent and thoughtful, it’s a few minutes of awful and then *so* much relief. Leaders trust people who are self-aware, have integrity, and are determined to keep learning. You’re going to do great.

    2. Moray*

      And when you take responsibility for a mistake, don’t grovel. Don’t prematurely assume anyone is going to be angry or massively disappointed–acting like something you’ve done is the worst thing in the world is often going to make someone more likely to see it that way when otherwise they would have just brushed it off.

      Like when a little kid falls down–a parent learns not to run over right away and start excessively comforting, because the kid might just get up and start playing again. If the parent rushes over to start soothing, the kid is going to assume they’ve actually been hurt and start wailing accordingly.

      1. TootsNYC*

        or if it’s clearly not that big of a deal, it’s going to make people exasperated at having to comfort and reassure you over it.

        And in addition to being irritated, they won’t trust your sense of perspective.

        Which probably doesn’t help your anxiety one damned bit!

      2. Heidi*

        I don’t know what this says about my job, but mistakes are going to happen and it actually cheers me up a bit when one of them turns out to be a really effortless fix. I even kind of enjoy the fixing at some level, like a “how am I going to get out of this escape room” challenge. Being able to fix mistakes well can be a career skill in itself.

      3. Ann Nonymous*

        I’m much older and have gotten much more comfortable with my mistakes. I’ll tell my boss, “It looks like I goofed here. I thought I had done x, but it seems I did y. I’ve fixed it now and going forward I’ll double check.”

      4. Kendra*

        This. Don’t take a mistake too lightly, but don’t be Chicken Little and run around screaming that the sky is falling, either; that’s not actually a helpful response to anyone. Equally bad is excessive guilt and/or anxiety over mistakes; it’s good that you understand where your error was, but beating yourself up over it, rather than examining or correcting it, is not helpful.

        I had a staff member who was very prone to that reaction whenever they messed up, and it made them incredibly emotionally draining to manage. Any time I had to point out a mistake to them, I would usually think something like, “okay, it’s time to go kick the puppy,” because that was how awful it felt. It got to the point that I dreaded seeing them (despite liking them as a human being), and I eventually realized that I was avoiding assigning them projects, just to minimize the chance that I might have to error-check them. It was…not a good situation, for either of us.

    3. OtterB*

      Agree to this. Rule of thumb: Never let your boss be unpleasantly surprised.

      Somebody here had a related maxim that went something like: Never be the highest person in the hierarchy who knows about a problem/mistake.

      1. Southern Yankee*

        “Never let your boss be unpleasantly surprised”
        So much this! It also applies equally to a brand new graduate employee and a Sr. VP. Advice to remember.

      2. Roy G. Biv*

        Yes! This! “Never let your boss be unpleasantly surprised.” Being forthright, yet polite, in the office can help you earn your reputation of being honest, teamwork oriented, and a problem solver (as opposed to a problem maker). And I have found it can earn you quite a bit of capital in the workplace.

        This is a hard-won lesson from 20+ years in the workplace. Oh, how I wish AAM was a thing in my youth!

    4. Duchess Honeybadger*

      YES to this! Everyone makes mistakes. I judge them not on routine mistakes, but based on how they respond to them. Did I find out from you, and right away? Are you more interested in solving the problem than casting blame or self-flagellating? As long as it’s a data point and not a trend, fixing mistakes can be an excellent opportunity to show the boss how awesomely resilient you are. (Note: I am not suggesting that people make mistakes on purpose to create this opportunity.)

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Yes, good workplaces want someone who accepts responsibility, helps to solve the problem, and doesn’t make that mistake again.

        Not the person arguing about how everything that happens is Not Their Fault, nor the one who sits there beating themselves with a wet noodle and moaning.

    5. Southern Yankee*

      Definitely this. If you find a mistake you made, don’t hide it from fear or embarrassment. Fess up asap. It’s often good if you find a mistake yourself because it shows you have some skill/judgement/critical thinking ability to recognize an error before someone else points it out. It also allows you to approach your boss having already evaluated the issue instead of being off guard.

      As the boss, I’m often less worried about the mistake than how the employee reacts. When you tell your boss, take responsibility for it AND suggest a way to avoid the mistake in the future (i.e. I was in a hurry and didn’t check the math; next time I’ll double check right before I submit it). Ask for advice on prevention if it makes sense to the situation. Show me you learned something from it and you’ve thought about how to prevent it happening again, and you’ll gain points for being mature and professional. This all still applies if you don’t catch it first, in which case you can ask your boss to help evaluate why it might have happened and how to prevent it (Allison’s scripts are great).

      Good luck OP and don’t beat yourself up. You’ve got this!

    6. Clisby*

      I was just going to say this. If you realize you’ve made a mistake, own up to it (preferably with idea or two about how to fix it/prevent it in future). Never try to conceal it.

    7. Marissa*

      The only thing worse than bad news is bad news late. This is the mantra I use if I’ve made a mistake. Makes it easier to push through the urge to hide the problem and hope no one notices and move into disclosure and problem solving mode.

      1. Indigo a la mode*

        Yes, the greatest lesson I’ve learned (and occasionally have to relearn) is that bad news never gets better with time. My natural impulse is to completely avoid bringing up an issue until I can also present a solution, but lack of communication and later results never improves the situation.

    8. online and in public*

      So much this! I train new hires at my company and on our work we have the ability to literally break things in very public and embarrassing ways and we talk publicly to our users a lot. The big thing I tell our new hires is: don’t touch a button unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing, and secondly if you do accidentally break something tell us immediately. We won’t be mad if you break something but we will be mad if you try to hide that you broke something.

    9. PJs of Steven Tyler*

      Yup yup yup! I once missed having the company president sign a tax return and I mailed it to the client; I immediately went to my supervisor and told him. He has been my work mentor for 16 years now and still brings up that he knew I was a good employee when I ‘fessed up before my mistake was caught by someone else.

  2. fposte*

    In addition, OP, your boss didn’t “kindly and graciously take a chance”–your boss decided your skills and potential were worth money. You are not the recipient of a favor here any more than anybody else working there; it’s a standard business exchange.

    Imposter syndrome can make you frame yourself as a supplicant, where you believe you’re only just permitted to be there. But this is your job, not their job that they’re letting you do. It might be helpful to keep that in mind when you’re working the learning curve of how best to do it–it doesn’t have to be perfect to still be yours.

    1. londonedit*

      Yes! So much this! Your boss is not doing you a favour by allowing you to work there. Your boss hired you because she believes in your ability to do the job. Believe that!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Managers don’t typically bestow jobs as favors (at least good ones don’t). They hired you because they want to buy your labor. It’s not a favor; it’s a business exchange.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes, yes! It’s also so uncomfortable for a manager to supervise someone who behaves in the role of supplicant or who treats a position as if it were a blessing bestowed from on high. It also has a risk of leading OP to undermine themselves professionally by failing to identify when to push back or advocate for themselves.

      It’s a business transaction between two adults, and it helps to remember that OP would not have gotten the job had the employer not thought OP had the skills. They’re not “taking a chance” on OP—they’re making a calculated decision based on their business needs.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        The key word here, OP, is “adults”. While you are new to the role and junior to your boss, this is no longer a teacher/student relationship where the teacher is the adult and you are the “kid”. Your boss hired you because she sees you as an adult, which is empowering to you. When you feel that imposter syndrome and the rush to apologize, remember that you are an adult and your boss has confidence in you.

        1. Jadelyn*

          This is such a critical, key point, and it can be really hard to make that shift. I was already in my late 20s when I got my first office job, but because I spent the first part of my 20s in a series of customer service/food service jobs (thanks, depression, for rendering me incapable of holding down a job for any length of time), when I started my first office job I still *felt* very young in comparison to everyone else. And it really took the first couple years for me to develop my confidence and feel like I am a full-fledged adult professional among peers, rather than the kid who needs to stay out of the way and just do what the adults tell them to.

          So, OP, it’s a hard lesson, but one that time will help you learn, and the more you can consciously reframe yourself from “youngster and receipient of a gracious favor that lets me work here” to “adult professional who’s here because I have value to contribute”, the easier it will be. I know it feels like you’re faking it at first. It’ll get better, I promise.

    4. RUKiddingMe*

      Great comment. I didn’t like the “favor” aspect of it either but you articulated it much better than I could fo this early (and only one coffee) in the morning.

  3. AccountantWendy*

    If the OP reads this, I would like to add to Alison’s advice: don’t be afraid to ask for help when you begin to feel a situation getting away from you! Most of my major mistakes have been made because I was trying to do it all myself instead of identifying a problem and seeking guidance on how to address it. An ounce of prevention is wroth a pound of cure! Asking for help is a normal part of being in the workplace, especially in your first job post-graduation.

    1. irene adler*

      Yes! X 1000!!
      You’ll be looked upon as possessing maturity and good judgment for preventing that ‘runaway train’ from happening.
      It might feel like a bruise to the ego, but you’ll be nipping a company problem in the bud- always appreciated.

    2. goducks*

      Yes, but show applied knowledge, too.
      I’m a little war weary right now because I’ve been dealing with a recent grad who 18 months into the job is so terrified of stretching her wings that she asks questions about every little thing. I’ve tried and tried to coach her to try to find her own answer, and when mistakes have happened I’ve displayed a “mistakes will happen, and we can fix pretty much anything” attitude, but still she will not find her own answers. Even for things like “what do I put in this box of the form?” when the form is a common government form that comes with a very specific set of instructions that address exactly how to fill it out.
      I get that it can be tough to find the balance at the beginning of one’s career, but I think that for some afraid to make a mistake types, they revert to asking for help before they try on their own. And that’s a problem unto itself.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I agree but I think this has to do with someone knowing when to “kick off the training wheels”, 18 months and still like that YIKES! but for the first six months, getting your footing, you should be pretty leery of executing the knowledge you learned in school and turning it into how things work professionally!

        So it’s all about learning to wade before you swim, check the depth. But if you’re always running back to shore, for years, this won’t work out well professionally unless you’re going to be locked into positions with strict scripts.

        1. goducks*

          Completely agree, that at first there’s the training wheels. But yeah, at 18 months, when this person is in an HR admin role and is asking questions like “How many days jury duty pay do we pay?” (check the handbook, it is clearly stated in there… and your job is to know that handbook in and out), or “Does the employee need to bring original documents for the I-9, or can they just bring photocopies?” (You’ve processed dozens of these forms, and the answer is clearly in the instructions for the form), it gets old.
          Fortunately, as I was looking to transition her out, she gave notice. She’s done on Friday.

          I suspect she’s terrified of mistakes, she’s a perfectionist as far as I can tell, and no amount of me telling her that she’s been doing her job long enough to know how to find the answer, and that I have faith in her ability to find the answer, and that even if she makes a mistake it can be fixed will let her stretch herself in her head. I think that’s the other way that imposter syndrome/fear of failure can play out. Being so afraid of failure that they desire micromanaging.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            I was so going to scream “FIRE HER” and then it got to the part where she self-selected out! Thank goodness, woah.

            She’s certainly a bad fit for whatever reason, either her perfection or something else is dragging her down internally. Maybe she realized she hates the stress of processing documents and relaying procedures that do have high stakes for the business, that’s a lot of stress for a lot of people! I had a similar nagging ugly feeling inside when I started doing HR work and now I’ve seen audits and dealt with so much shenanigans I’m like “nothing is going to explode, it’s all about good faith and due diligence, I got it.” She could be wrapped up in her mind saying “If I don’t dot that i, I’m going to go to jail for 10 years!” given how strongly worded the documents can be!

            1. goducks*

              The irony is we just had a wage and hour audit a few months back and while it’s stressful to have reps from the state show up and say show me your records, it was of course fine. A couple of really minor findings (a couple employees punched in one minute early from lunch meaning they didn’t get their entire legally mandated 30 minutes), but it was FINE, we got a letter to fix it, we did. NBD. I kept trying to stress to her that in HR, while the letter of the law rules, when it comes to fines/jail, they really do look at good faith efforts.
              I was already working a plan to remove her (some internal politics made it a little trickier than I’d have liked), but then she gave notice. She seemed shocked that I wasn’t broken up at her resignation, but gave a simple “Ok, thanks for telling me. Good luck, and lets discuss a plan to transition out of your ongoing stuff”

              1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

                My boss says that an old CPA once told him that if the books are “too clean” then it triggers even more digging senses for the auditor, lol. It’s pretty extreme but they assume that mistakes will happen.

                If everyone has a pristine timecard, they assume you’re rigging the system and will start asking employees about how the timekeeping system works and dig around to make sure that you’re not just putting in a 30 minute lunch automatically. Which is more stressful in the end, even though you know nothing is sketchy, you have that horror film running in your mind thinking of that one smartmouth employee who would spin a yarn thinking it was funny. Auditors don’t laugh, that’s my only rule is the “no dumb jokes, dude, no dumb jokes.”

                1. goducks*

                  Yep, I’ve told people treat the auditors like TSA. Answer questions truthfully, don’t offer more than they ask for, and for god’s sake don’t joke!

              2. Jadelyn*

                Poor thing! I mean, I get that HR compliance can be complex and occasionally downright labyrinthine (I’m HR in California, of all places – we set the bar for labyrinthine labor law!), but it sounds like she was so overwhelmed by that fact that it sunk her. HR probably isn’t a great fit for her if that’s the case, I hope she’s moving on to a job that doesn’t stress her as badly.

          2. smoke tree*

            Another piece of advice in here is that there are usually resources available for new employees to find answers or at least do some preliminary research before asking questions. I feel like this factor alone is a major influence on whether an intern is a net benefit or drain on my department. Every college/university career centre should have a giant cross-stitch featuring this piece of wisdom.

    3. Sleepytime Tea*

      Yes! OP, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re sitting in a meeting and people start throwing around industry jargon you don’t understand or acronyms specific to the company you don’t know yet, ASK. You aren’t doing yourself any favors if you keep yourself in the dark. I mean don’t derail an entire meeting over it, but if someone says the “CAPO project” and you have no idea what CAPO is, just quickly pipe up at an appropriate place and say “could you remind me what CAPO stands for?” You’re new, no one is going to really expect you to know this, but it’s also the type of thing so ingrained for people who have been there awhile that they aren’t going to think to stop and explain for you.

      Too many times I’ve seen people get into tough spots because they never asked questions, never asked for details about things because everyone else in the room seemed to already know. I’ve been in my career for over 15 years, and I still ask questions. It’s a great practice.

      Also, take notes! So many notes. Take notes about training. Take notes in meetings. Take notes when someone explains something to you.

      1. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

        What Sleepytime Tea said. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take lots of notes. When I first started my current job I got a notebook and wrote notes on procedures, different company-specific websites I would need, the names of people in the company I would need to liase with, etc. Would love an update in about three months or so to let us know how you are doing at the job.

      2. Lx in Canada*

        I’ve been in my current job for just over a month and I swear I am asking questions *constantly*. I am probably somewhat annoying but I am just trying to learn! People don’t seem to mind too much. I also try to figure things out on my own, but sometimes I just come across something that is not explained or covered in any documentation anywhere and then I need to ask. Also, a lot of my job requires using your best judgment but I am not entirely sure what that is yet, so I often ask for others’ opinions to see how they go through it, and why they would make the decisions that they do.

      3. Kendra*


        I have openly begged a few of my staff to ask me questions if they don’t know how something works, and they still won’t do it until after the mistake has been made (the others don’t seem to have a problem with it, so I don’t think I’m scaring them off…). This has led to a number of interesting situations (for example, did you know that if you put an RFID security tag on the wrong side of a DVD, it becomes unplayable, because the disc can no longer spin correctly? Also, that the adhesive on those tags is designed so that removing them destroys the DVD? I did, but one of my staff didn’t, and now we have ~100 ruined DVDs on our hands. Good times).

        I would always rather answer questions than deal with the fallout from an easily preventable mistake!

    4. Southern Yankee*

      Great point. I had an employee that wouldn’t admit when she didn’t understand something, even to the point that I could tell she didn’t understand and kept prompting her to ask more questions. No matter how much I offered help, extra explanation, coaching, etc., she was adamant that she understood and didn’t need help. Very soon she was so under the water that her performance was a very serious issue. She still couldn’t admit a problem and resigned to avoid being terminated.

      It might also help to think of potential mistakes in a different light – as things you just don’t know yet. My biggest early career problem was thinking I needed to know everything and it was not OK to ask for help because I would seem clueless and incompetent. I had to learn that acting like a knew something then going away to figure it out just wasted everyone’s time. A little bit of figuring it out will help you embed those lessons in your mind – but spending two hours on it is very different than spending two days. Ask for help when you need it. No one will be surprised or offended – it’s just something you need to learn.

      1. TootsNYC*

        think of mistakes as things you just don’t know yet.

        Just popping this out there for everyone to see.

        I think our OP intellectually knows this–maybe if she chants it to herself on her morning jog or something, she can hold it more strongly.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Yes. I’m 38, have over a decade of professional experience, and still made some mistakes starting at my new job – my manager told me “we do the best we can until we know better, and then when we know better, we do better”. I thought that was a great sentiment in general.

      2. Katrinka*

        Exactly. A lot of new employees are still operating under “school rules” where asking for help is cheating and not knowing something is failure. At work, it’s absolutely fine to not know something and to ask for help to find out. It’s part of the job.

    5. TootsNYC*


      As a manager, I am your coach. I need to know when you see difficulties looming. Because ESPECIALLY with a rookie, but even with a veteran, I can be most helpful if I know early.

      A good manager facilitates her team. It’s my job to make it possible for you to do yours.

      I can coach; I can clear roadblocks; I can lay in contingency plans; I can reassure you that this is not the big difficulty you fear it is, I can tell you how I want to be communicated with over it, I can even admire you when you end up handling it successfully.

      We are working together on this job. Sure, you have tasks that are your part, but we are working on it together, and your success is mine, and your difficulties are mine.

      Keep me in the loop so I can do my job.

      1. Jadelyn*

        You sound like a really great manager, and I think your staff are probably lucky to have you.

        This was actually something I had to work with my manager on when I first started here – I am a people-pleaser, and was in an assistant role so that only intensified it, and I had a habit of over-committing myself to too many things and then having a hard time when the stress of being overloaded kicked in. We had to have a few coaching conversations about it, down to the “giving scripts for it” level, before I reached a point where I felt like I could push back on requests or refer people over to my manager if they needed something, so she could push them back for me. And my manager phrased it very similarly to how you did here – she told me she was more than happy to be a buffer for me and step in to push other people off so that I could get my work done, because her role is to facilitate my ability to do my role, and if I don’t tell her when I’m getting overwhelmed from a surfeit of requests, she can’t step in and do that for me.

    6. ursula*

      Yes! And also, not every piece of critical feedback or advice for how to do something better is indicative of a mistake. Your manager will usually make clear if it’s a real mistake, but often constructive feedback is just a matter of course and is how your boss is coaching you to continue improving and growing (and maybe advancing!).

      A thing that has helped me with this is realizing that someone will only bother to give you that kind of feedback if they think you are smart and capable and reasonable enough to apply it and improve, and that it’s worth it to put in this kind of effort to coach you. I listen to how many managers talk about their true problem employees, and often they have just given up giving them coaching feedback (especially on small things) because it’s just not worth it – the employee doesn’t have the skills or outlook to actually improve and so the manager (rightly or wrongly) doesn’t bother. So whenever I hear critical feedback from someone I trust, I remember that it means they think I can handle it and they want me to be great.

      Good luck, LW, you’ve got this.

    7. Mockingbird*

      One of the best things I learned when I was an associate in a law firm was to not just go to the senior partner/boss/client with questions on how to handle something, but to take a few more minutes to think about what I’d recommend doing. So I’m not just approaching them with a question, but with a suggested answer or two.

      It doesn’t work for everything (sometimes you just need a factual answer from them that you can’t get in any other reasonable way), but where it does, it’s very powerful. It shows that you’ve put some thought into the issue.

      Be a problem-solver whenever possible, not a problem-creator.

  4. S.*

    Not even funny how real this is as someone in their first real office-based internship. I think I am doing ok but I am t e r r i f i e d that someone is watching me mess up at any given moment, especially since my manager has a habit of seeing someone she doesn’t like in my performance and unloading it later in the week in our weekly meeting. I also have heavy imposter syndrome and a tendency to dwell on negative feedback! Good luck OP I’m out here with you!

    1. londonedit*

      You know your boss, obviously, but I think even as ‘just’ an intern you’d still have the standing to ask her to do this differently. I don’t think any reasonable boss would have a problem with an intern who says ‘I’ve noticed that you often remark on aspects of my performance that could be better during our weekly meeting. It would really help me if you could point out things I’m not doing so well when they happen – I’d find it much easier to note them and correct them for the future’.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s pretty typical to save these discussions for your weekly meetings, unless it’s something that needs addressed immediately. So I’m sorry that she’s got you jumpy but that’s pretty standard.

      If she’s doing it aggressively or something in that fashion, that’s not acceptable and your boss is doing their job badly in that aspect. However the point of a weekly meeting is to discuss these kinds of things and also discuss current/new projects, etc.

    3. DerJungerLudendorff*

      I’m not sure, but is the weekly meeting a 1-on-1, or a team meeting? Because I initially read it as team meeting, which would seem inappropriate for personal feedback.

      A 1-on-1 seems perfectly normal though. And you can definitely ask them to deliver it differently if that makes it easier to process them.

      1. Alanna of Trebond*

        I would really not recommend asking the boss to deliver feedback differently, particularly if this is your first time in a professional environment. Part of the learning process of an internship is figuring out how to hear and incorporate feedback from people with different styles, and to deal with it without making your emotions your manager’s responsibility.

  5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Hi OP!

    I used to get super embarrassed when I made mistakes at work (I had similar internal pressures around not wanting to let folks down, feeling incompetent, etc.). I mean, to be fair, I still sometimes get embarrassed. But at least it’s less common, now, and I’m not living with the anxiety of constant fear of failure.

    A couple things really helped me. First, I began to look at mistakes as opportunities for growth instead of internalizing them as character flaws or failures. It gave me some emotional distance, which I needed, and it helped me identify strategies or steps I could take to prevent or minimize future mistakes.

    Next, I began to filter “real mistakes” from “small mistakes.” Everyone makes mistakes, but I wanted to focus my efforts on preventing mistakes that were a Big Deal from minor or meaningless mistakes. Then I began to develop checklists, reminders, etc., to help prevent “real mistakes” so that I could clear some brainspace. I also started to actively seek feedback ahead of time, which helped me internalize that mistakes are normal.

    I also want to recommend the book Thanks for the Feedback. It helps identify what may be triggering your fears and how to interrupt those processes. And if this is more deeply rooted, then it may make sense to seek out a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, who can help guide you through shifting your feelings.

    1. Raquel*

      ^ This!! Develop judgment on the scale of mistakes too. Some things really only merit a quick apology/acknowledgment.

      I’d suggest books discussing psychology and interpersonal relations – learning how to work well with competing personalities is good for anyone in any field! It’s easy to assume everything centers around you, but having a broader picture of what motivates people around you and the different personality types you’ll encounter will help you thrive.

      I’d also really like to emphasize about what Alison said about responses – there is /no reason/ to offer a five paragraph long explanation every time there’s a mistake or misunderstanding. The last 2 new people I’ve trained felt the need to over-explain every mistake, and it was exhausting for me. On rare occasions I’ll ask why something happened (because I think it could be a problem with a fundamental understanding that I want to correct), but most of the time I don’t need to know. I expect a person who cares about what they’re doing to diagnose where they went wrong so they won’t let it happen again – but I don’t need to know all that! Especially if it’s something as simple as “when this happens, the boss prefers to do X instead of Y.” That’s just how learning happens!

      One more tip – if you don’t know how to do something, try saying something like “I haven’t done this before, but I will look into it to figure it out” or “.. but I will talk to Jane so we can get it done for you” — or whatever might be appropriate. This let’s the person requesting the task know that you haven’t done it before, but also demonstrates that you are willing to take initiative. Good luck!!

  6. Syfygeek*

    In addition to Alison’s awesome advice, I’d add:

    Take notes. And when you have time, organize your notes. I take notes, but often I find that when I go back to refer to them, I’ve forgotten to list a step, thinking that I’ll remember it. If I catch the omission soon enough, I can go back to the trainer and ask what I’ve forgotten. In time, you’ll have your own procedure manual.

    Also, making mistakes is okay. Just try to not make the same one over and over. (and that goes back to the notes)

    Good Luck in your new job!

    1. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s SuperAnon*

      On the topic of notes, OneNote is my savior. If you can use that from the beginning of your job, I highly recommend it!

      1. Becky*

        LOL my manager uses oneNote but I don’t know if there’s something wrong with his installation or if his laptop has insufficient resources but he in our weekly team meeting he often complains about it not starting up or working right or in a timely manner.

    2. Federal Middle Manager*

      This. When I start a new job I just have a running WORD doc of notes, tips and procedures. They don’t have to be organized because it’s searchable. But there is just way too much info at the beginning to take it all in, and you often won’t know where the all the procedures/resources are in your new office until you get more familiar with the workflow.

    3. Harper the Other One*

      Yes, this is exactly what I came to say! Take notes, and refer to them often. You can even treat it a bit like studying – if rewriting your notes, or colour coding, or reading them out loud to yourself helped with your coursework, you can do that with work notes too!

  7. londonedit*

    I think one of the main things is to own up to your mistakes as soon as they happen. Again, you’ll need to use discretion on this – your boss isn’t going to mind (or want to hear) about you forgetting to attach a document on an email to a colleague, but if you forget to do something your boss has asked you to do, or you realise you gave out incorrect information, then just make sure you tell your boss as soon as you notice your mistake. Don’t fling yourself at her mercy every time – there’s no need to go overboard apologising beyond ‘I’m sorry, I realised I sent out the wrong version of the weekly report earlier. I’ve already had some people querying it – should I send an email to apologise with the correct version now?’ But don’t, under any circumstances, try to cover up your mistakes or fix things by yourself. It can be scary to admit that you’ve made a mistake, but a supportive boss will want to help you – and it will definitely be a learning experience! Your boss just wants to know that you can recognise a mistake, own up to it, and seek help to find a solution. You’re not expected to know all the answers and get everything right the first time.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, that’s just right. I’ve been in the workforce for decades and in my current job for a couple of years and this is still a good practice! I did something recently and someone else reacted like I had really made a mistake, so at my next check-in with my boss, I just said, “I think I made an error in X, Y, and Z ways…” and she was like, “No, you’re fine — no one would know that and it’s not a big deal.” But I’m still glad I mentioned it because my job is pretty political and you never know what’s going to bubble up!

      So specifically for the OP, I think the key is not to make a bigger deal of something than it needs to be but let your boss know what’s up and ask for their advice on how to do better next time.

  8. Properlike*

    Two things:

    1. I’m someone with imposter syndrome who had to manage (in a volunteer capacity) someone who had it a million times worse. He was so afraid of messing up that he kept checking in with me before he made a decision, involving me in any decision, second-guessing every decision, and then checking with me to make sure he did the right thing. It was EXHAUSTING. Don’t do this. Assume you’ll be good enough, that you’ll mess up, that you’ll fix it, and the world won’t end.

    2. Practice messing up in something else! Go take a class in something you have NO IDEA how to do and are probably really bad at. A martial art, math, cooking… something. Fail at it. A lot. In a low-stakes environment, it helps to see the world won’t end.

    I used to be like you, and it held me back. Now I teach, and I watch students so afraid of messing up that they won’t even try to solve a math problem and they talk themselves out of it. You only get better by messing up. Mess up. Failure is an important skill!

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is excellent advice. It’s absolutely true that it’s exhausting to manage someone who hasn’t figured out how to cope with their imposter syndrome. And the advice about failing in low-stakes environments is brilliant. The most important part of handling mistakes/failure is figuring out how to bounce back or deal with it (is this what folks are calling “grit” now?).

    2. londonedit*

      Your second point is an excellent idea! I have perfectionist tendencies, and I run precisely because I am crap at it. I really struggle with not being instantly good at things, and not only was I not instantly good at running when I started, I’m still not very good at running 10 years down the line. But it’s good for me to have something that directly challenges my ‘you must be good at everything’ thinking, and something that often makes me confront my own weaknesses head-on.

      1. mf*

        Me too! I’m a recovering perfectionist who uses running to practice being mediocre. :)

        I’ll never be really good at running because I don’t have the natural athletic talent for it. I might not be winning races, but I find it super rewarding when my pace gets a little faster or a finish a longer run. It’s taught me to celebrate the small milestones and achievements that come with working hard to get better at something.

    3. fposte*

      There’s a useful concept known as “failing forward”–it’s about embracing error as part of the path of achievement.

      I like it because it puts achievement and error together as inextricable. The only way to make no mistakes is to do nothing–which is the biggest mistake of all.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I think our OP gets this intellectually.

        It’s a matter of making it feel strong in her gut.

    4. Washi*

      Yes! I found reading Carol Dweck’s work about fixed vs. growth mindset to be incredibly enlightening. Once I was aware of my fixed mindset (my intelligence/capability is static, mistakes mean I am bad, if I have to try hard at something it means I am not smart, better not to try than to try and fail) I was able to practice pushing myself toward more of a growth mindset (I can always improve my skills, mistakes are a learning opportunity, trying hard is how I grow, better to try than play it safe.) It’s made a huge difference in my life!

      1. fposte*

        Oh, I really recommend reading Mindset–it’s very, very helpful for anybody with perfectionist tendencies.

        1. Jadelyn*

          I just downloaded a sample onto my Nook, and am all of like…5 pages in and having a Moment with it. Thanks for the recommendation!

    5. Smithy*

      More cheers to failure as a skill – or another way to look at it is “don’t let the great get in the way of the good”. A LOT of work that is done every day is good. It’s hardly perfect but it achieves what it needs and helps work move at a functional pace.

      So again to cheerlead practicing failing in a low stakes environment – I think activities like cooking or baking are great for this. There are recipes that come out good but not great, and both developing grit to get either better or faster at a skill – but also to embrace, hey an edible cake is still cake.

    6. hbc*

      I was also going to recommend getting out there with some public mistakes and failures. Go to a busy park and try to learn to juggle–no fair practicing at home first. Skating is also something that’s pretty much impossible to look good at your first time out. Share your terrible artwork with your friends with the clear message that it’s your best possible effort.

    7. Shananana*

      I take wheel pottery for this very purpose. While I am slowly getting better, I am never going to be great at it, and anytime I start to feel too confident, the bowl always collapses on me. And whenever anyone asks I explain that this is therapy for a perfectionist lol

    8. ursula*

      Taking up video games as a hobby in my adulthood has helped me SO MUCH as someone who is mortified by failure (or, really, being anything less than naturally great at any activity). Having an activity where it is safe to fail (there are no real consequences/stakes) and you can process your experience mindfully and let your poor panicking body *feel* that nothing terrible happens when you make a mistake can be really and truly healing. Especially if you were a type-A high-grades-earning student, or if you are a people-pleaser, this is a GREAT opportunity to take up a cool new hobby and also make some major major strides towards a healthier relationship with yourself and your work!

      1. Jadelyn*

        I find this comment fascinating, because I’ve been a gamer since I was old enough to hold a gameboy (the old silver brick kind, which tells you how long ago that was), and…I find myself avoiding certain titles in my Steam library specifically because I know I’m going to be bad at them. For example, my partner plays Warframe with a few of his friends, and I’ve started to play, but I’m not even entirely out of the intro missions yet bc I’m so afraid that I’ll get past that, go to play with him and his friends, and make a total fool of myself. Maybe because to me, there *are* stakes there – the good opinion of my significant other and his friends.

        But I like the *idea* of video games as a low-stakes training ground for how to fail. Maybe I just need to play more single-player games, lol.

        1. ursula*

          I’m exclusively single-player, for this exact reason! I still get too in my own head about being bad at a game in sight of other people. Especially coming to it as an adult, it often takes me longer than it takes other people to get a feel for games and get good enough to really dig in. But in single player games I have benefited a lot from letting myself get frustrated, processing that, noticing myself getting better with time, and learning how to enjoy things even if I’m not yet super good at them. No wrong way! (I started on the silver brick GameBoy too, but then didn’t play much through gradeschool because my brothers took over the systems. So much missed time!)

  9. Marzipan*

    OP, maybe it would help to view this through the mindset they drilled into us when I was studying design: ‘fail in order to succeed’. Failure, mistakes, things going a bit pear-shaped – looked at in this way, those aren’t unfortunate difficulties to be avoided, they’re signposts to making things even better. They open up possibilities. They allow you to learn.

    Go forth, and mess things up sometimes, and learn gracefully from those experiences. Be a person who helps other people to do the same. Congratulations on graduating! You’re going to be fine.

  10. Shirley Keeldar*

    Hi, OP–fellow recovering perfectionist here, welcome to the club! It’s a very big club. There are a ton of us.

    I’m nearly fifty, and your letter took me right back to the feelings I had starting my first “real” job. And, yep, I made mistakes–one was a real doozy, which had my (very nice) boss telling me the job might not work out. Yeah, that didn’t feel great. But when I was able to incorporate her feedback and make the changes she needed, she complimented me on that and we had a great business relationship–she was a real mentor to me. So mistakes don’t ruin a job, I promise!

    I’ll add just one thing to Alison’s sage advice–you say you’re worried about letting down your boss, who has “kindly and graciously” taken a chance on you. It’s good to care about not letting your boss down, and I don’t want to discourage that. But I want to push back a little on your feeling that your boss is being kind and gracious by giving you a job. She’s not–she hired you because she needs you, because the business needs you. They’re giving you money because they need you. If you can keep that in mind, perhaps it will ease your anxiety a bit. You don’t need to be perfect to pay your boss back for the enormous favor of hiring you, because she didn’t do you a favor at all–she did her best for the company by hiring a competent, conscientious person. She did her job. And if you do yours too, the balance will be even between you.

    Good luck!

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I was able to incorporate her feedback and make the changes she needed.

      OP, this is what any functional workplace wants from employees when they make mistakes. Starting out you don’t know everything; as you gain experience you are expected to make fewer mistakes on familiar things and start taking on new tasks, on which you may make some mistakes as you’re learning.

      Where the job might not work out is when someone’s mistakes are pointed out, and then they make the exact same mistakes next week.

  11. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I find you will often grow out of your some of this fear after awhile. This is a big new adventure with high stakes in your mind because it’s drilled into your head that work is serious, managers want perfection and no-nonsense, etc.

    That’s not the way the world works at all but it’s that wide eyed child looking into the room with big wide eyes while the “adults” do “adult” things. However even CEO’s have to pick their wedgies, they fumble and make outrageously costly mistakes at times.

    We work a lot of things up bigger and beastlier than ever in our minds, it’s how fear grows, the “unknown.”

    You cannot prepare for everything. You won’t always receive great training. You’ll fumble but it’s all about the recovery. Learning from mistakes, picking yourself up gracefully and dusting yourself off.

    1. Clisby*

      Yes, when I was first starting out in my second career (as a computer programmer), I was in a job where I’d be assigned a series of fairly small programming jobs for a non-IT department. The long-term supervisor assigning these said more than once that her philosophy was: “If you work with these systems, sometimes you’re going to break them. That’s OK.” She was not at all cavalier about mistakes – she just recognized people make mistakes, and the important part was that we learned how to fix the resulting problems, and prevent future mistakes. I saw people who genuinely could not internalize this idea, and then were paralyzed with fear that there would be dire consequences for any mistake.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        When I teach people to use our software, I tell them “this isn’t breakable, you won’t bring us down unknowingly, so don’t be afraid to try.” Along with “But if you make an error and notice it, or the system starts squawking at you, please just let us know and we’ll figure out what is going on.”

        It’s why I was able to be thrown into deep water with a new ERP system in my position. Everyone is tip toeing around and hating the software, when I’m like “It won’t let you do anything that’s going to hurt anything that will jeopardize more than a single order, it won’t bring down the place.”

        I thank my first boss, who was a bit of a character, for teaching me to use the fax machine by “hitting it” because sometimes it was picky [it was a 1996 fax machine FFS] and my response was “Hahah…okay I won’t hit it but I’ll press buttons until it does what I want.” [Spoiler, I am a master of fax machines to this day, sadly they’re dying out but I use the carry over skills for all electronics ;)]

        The majority of people then become comfortable with the environment without the embedded fear of errors or getting lectured for days for making an error. If someone is truly bad at the job and prone to errors, that’s another level and rare.

    2. Fortitude Jones*

      You cannot prepare for everything. You won’t always receive great training. You’ll fumble but it’s all about the recovery.

      All of this. And speaking of not receiving great training, my first full-time job out of college, I was hired onto the company (a for-profit school) from a temp agency and was promoted to an admissions rep role. I didn’t know it then, but it was basically a sales job, and I had zero sales training – I never worked a day of retail in my life. My “training” for this position came a month after I was hired – the school sent one of their corporate trainers down to our location to train me and another new hire. This “trainer” spent two days reading to us word-for-word out of an admissions rep training manual – no joke. That was it. I had zero natural aptitude for selling anything, and since no one bothered to give me real, adequate training, I was let go a month or so later. I was simultaneously relieved and devastated! Relieved because the place was a dumpster fire behind the scenes with corporate sabotage and backbiting in the mix (I cried every night before bed thinking about having to go in the next day), but devastated because I had never been let go or failed at any job in my life (I worked all throughout college).

      I had a new job about six weeks after being let go, and you know what? I received proper training in an area I knew nothing about (foreclosure law), and I kicked ass at that firm for nearly three years! I was even able to create my own position while I was there, that’s how much upper management trusted me, my judgement, and my work.

      When I moved on and got settled in a new industry (insurance), I was once again trained thoroughly (the company actually sent me through a paid eight month training program for claims adjusters) – I still made a mistake when I landed in my permanent division. I sent a $500 check to the wrong person instead of to our named insured. My VP and SVP had to sign off on a $500 ex gratia payment that came out of our business expense, as opposed to the insured’s account, to make up for my error. I was so embarrassed, but I made note of it and never did it again. And you know what? A month or so later, my manager began giving me higher level claims to work on that would not typically be given to someone in my junior claims handling position, and I ended up training all the new hires/interns/trainees to my division on my team’s processes and procedures!

      So relax, OP. Even if you do make mistakes, you will ultimately learn from them, and you’ll move on and move up.

      1. KR*

        Great comment. I made an extremely costly mistake in my first year at my current employer. My manager told me that it wasn’t great but in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a huge deal. I still wont make the same mistake twice but I no longer fear bringing big problems to him

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yikes, bait and switch jobs that land you in sales AND that kind of “training”, [I wonder why they had such high turnover…these places always have high turnover /sarcasm].

        Honestly, I’ve had little to now formal training in most of my jobs. The most training I had was only for the specific job, in terms of “this is how you process this order start to finish” “these are the answers to technical questions” but I had to learn a lot of in between things. This didn’t teach me at all how to handle new things thrown at me later, since I was soon tasked with implementing new things. Either new policies, procedures or my favorite, new payroll law requirements [figuring out how to submit reports and remittance for new payroll tax items that come into effect]. I wasn’t taught any of that, it’s just from knowing how to break down the information in front of me and streamlining it.

        I have only once reported to someone lower than the CEO or ownership though, that was when I started and in the end the owner started coming directly to me because he didn’t trust his finance manager any longer. So it depends on the role and career path of course! But any large scale operation should have training or the resources for when you have questions about things so errors are limited!

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          The for-profit school’s employee turnover was abysmal. I think the longest tenured admissions rep had been there 12 months before he walked into work one day, left his badge on his desk, picked up his stuff, and left without saying a word. If I hadn’t desperately needed a job, I so would have followed him out the door, lol.

          But I agree with your last point – company’s should be training their employees or at least giving them the tools to teach themselves.

  12. Falling Diphthong*

    How feedback is delivered will depend on your field and office, but a lot of the time it can take the form:
    Email from other party: “This document should have three footnotes referencing the relevance to llamas; please add them.”
    Email from you: “Here you go.” *attach corrected document*

    Possibly “Sorry about that; here you go.” Where people go astray is trying to divert everyone’s time into litigating how much it isn’t their fault that they didn’t know about the llamas, and so much of the time no one cares. People make mistakes, sometimes it’s in llama footnoting, now that they’ve told you about that thing you messed up they expect you to remember the llama footnotes yourself going forward. You become the go-to person on what the monthly grooming report must include based on absorbing all those corrections over the years.

    1. londonedit*

      Totally. If you work with reasonable people, no one is ‘watching out’ for you to make a mistake and no one is going to castigate you for getting something wrong. I’m 15 years into my career and over a year into working at my current organisation, and just the other day a colleague sent me an email saying ‘Hey, I noticed you’d updated the X and Y fields on the database? Just a reminder, they’re actually for me to update – I fill those in when I send things to the next stage’. I did a brief internal cringe because I *really* should have known that, but no big deal, I sent an email back saying ‘Oh, sorry – totally got ahead of myself there! Thanks for sorting it out’. That’s it!

    2. KR*

      Yes! This obviously depends on the level of formality in your office, but I cannot count the amount of times I have said OOPS or Wow don’t know why I did that! Need coffee!
      I make mistakes all the time and I am still told I’m a high performer. What counts is that I try and I do the best I can and my boss has decided that’s quite well enough.

    3. Southern Yankee*

      Really great example of how most “mistakes” are perceived and the correct low level of acknowledgement required. Don’t derail something minor by diverting attention to litigating blame. Great point Falling Diphthong!

  13. TeapotNinja*

    Like Alison said everyone makes mistakes, a lot of them. Especially early in your career.

    The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, not to make disastrous ones, and ASK someone who knows better if you’re not sure about something. The best way to get into real trouble is to stew in your own soup of mistakes and uncertainty. Ask for help if you need it, tell someone if you think you made a mistake, listen to advice from more experienced coworkers and learn continuously.

    The other important thing is that if you’re not getting the proper support from your employer to grow as an employee, it’s ESPECIALLY important in your first few jobs to get the f*** out and get a job at an organization that values their employees, takes on-the-job training seriously, preferably has good mentors and in other ways invests in the continuous development/growth of the employees. You can do serious harm to your ability to operate at your full potential not only in your current job but also in your future jobs, if you have a job at an organization that treats their new employees poorly or ignores investing in their growth.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Seconding the lovely analogy to stewing in a soup of mistakes–an astonishing number of people attempt “Maybe I could not say anything–if a meteor strike takes out the entire geographic region by Friday, no one will notice.”

    2. AudreyParker*

      As someone who has never worked anywhere involving training or investment in growth (or at least not with my positions), this explains a lot! I didn’t even realize any of that existed until relatively recently, just thought I was an idiot for struggling with figuring out new systems all the time. It’s definitely affected my expectations (& professional growth, or lack thereof), as well as how I’m perceived in the job market, since it seems a lot of people assume the opposite – that of course you’ve been offered training and development opportunities, there’s just some massive flaw with *you* that you aren’t showing expected career progression.

      So definitely agree, don’t get too comfortable if you’re not seeing that kind of support – you may be willing to work through it now, assuming you’re paying some dues, but it can come back to bite you unexpectedly later.

  14. Cordoba*

    I find a good approach to mistakes, especially non-serious ones, is to openly own them in a way that indicates that they’re not a bigger deal than they are. People often put more effort and stress into dodging responsibility for an error than they would get from simply acknowledging it and moving on.

    There are cases where apologies or explanations are advisable, but often something like “I see, good catch” or “Yep, you’re right” is enough.

    No reasonable employer expects perfection. The best basketball players in the world still miss a bunch of shots. They typically don’t apologize for and explain them unless it’s a situation where that miss costs a game etc.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Right! Isn’t the best hitter in baseball history someone who hit the ball about half the time? (disclaimer – I know pretty much zero about baseball statistics, but I do seem to recall that a batting percentage of like 0.375 is amaaaaaaaaaazing.)

  15. Duchess Honeybadger*

    OP, you got this. I used to onboard for a very prestigious and hard-to-get job. The classes were almost always divided into two groups – the victims of impostor syndrome (like yourself) who were just waiting for someone to figure out that they didn’t belong there and the people who had always succeeded at everything they had ever done ever and were delighted to take their rightful places running the world. And I ALWAYS worried far less about the impostor syndromettes like you. Because you have likely made mistakes in your life, and you know how to get back up. As Alison says, YOU WILL FAIL. Everyone will. The Queen, your mom, you, me, and certainly those people that have always succeeded will, eventually, fail and possibly in a visible and high-stakes way. And the number of those “perfect” people I’ve seen lose it and just lay there, metaphorically, when this happens are stunning. Meanwhile, the impostor syndromettes are like, weebles wobble but they don’t fall down and pop up again to recommence to killing it. This is you. You will kill it. Good luck!

  16. Lily B*

    Sometimes imagining the worst-case scenario can actually be helpful. And the absolute worst they can do is fire you. That’s it. They can’t give you an incurable disease, or turn all your loved ones against you, or take out a full-page ad in the NYT calling you a dingus. The worst case scenario is that you get fired, you lean on your savings and possibly collect unemployment, you learn, you move on, and eventually find a new job. That would suck, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad. AAM is full of stories of people who have been fired for pretty egregious things who are still members of the workforce. And you normally would get lots of warning before that was to happen.

    1. Harper the Other One*

      In addition to this, when you do make mistakes (because we all do) ask yourself what the worst case of your mistake is. This is helpful for making you feel less stressed about mistakes (at entry level, you’re not likely to bring down the company by getting that report wrong!) but also for when you talk to your boss/supervisor. Then you’ll be able to say, “boss, I made mistake X and, worst case scenario, that means Y. Here’s my plan to fix it/mitigate the consequences.”

    2. Cap Hiller*

      This is a CBT strategy I think – one that I have definitely employed to give myself perspective. Having kids has given me perspective – when I’ve had things at work annoy me, I use my kids to force myself to truly evaluate for myself what matters in this life. Not to minimize mistakes or conflicts but to help manage my emotions in the moment

  17. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    Another thing to remember — in the majority of office jobs, mistakes you make in the normal course of your work are not likely to harm anyone, which means that pretty much anything can be fixed. It may be a big fix, it may be a complicated fix — but whatever it is, it’s not life-threatening, nobody’s been injured, and it can be fixed.

    (Abnormal situations like playing dumb office pranks with scissors or balconies (don’t), shoving your coworkers in front of cars because of phobias (yeesh) or all manner of terrible and inappropriate jokes that come to mind when pondering the local office duck club (quack quack, but really, DON’T) are a different story, so do try to avoid those type situations if you can.)

    1. Federal Middle Manager*

      Or if they are critical, a good organization will have a second set of eyes or review process. Everyone needs an editor!

    2. Southern Yankee*

      Great points about consequences. As an accountant with engineers in the family, I love to joke that any mistake I make can be fixed with a journal entry, where they can cause a bridge to fall down! Most office jobs are way more like the accounting end of that – pretty easy to fix errors and no big deal on consequences. On the engineering end of the spectrum, a brand new grad is not going to have the level of responsibility to have the bridge fall down – there will be multiple reviews by very experienced people well before the bridge is built!

  18. Allya*

    The good news is this gets easier with time and practice. I suffer from similar baggage and negative feedback makes me want to die, but I can at least fake being super cool with getting it because I know the right things to say in the moment (like Allison’s great scripts) and then I can go and privately have a break down over it and then once the intense shame has dissipated, I can actually process the advice and implement it.

    One strategy I use when I know I need some time before I can take in feedback delivered verbally is to make a written note of what was said immediately after the conversation (or during it if that seems appropriate). That way I don’t forget what the actual message was while my brain is throwing a tantrum about not magically being perfect at all times. Another thing I do is if there’s feedback delivered by email and it doesn’t need an immediate response (for example if your work is being routinely checked while you’re training) I’ll wait until the end of the day to go over it so I have some space to process it.

    But even just the action of initially responding to the feedback as though it’s a super normal thing helps me feel a bit more normal about it. If nothing else, I can be proud of the fact that I seem completely unfazed by it, even if I’m not.

  19. Ptarmigan*

    Here’s something else to possibly keep in mind. In school, a teacher or professor’s job is to correct and grade you. They want you to succeed, but assigning a grade to you is always going to be part of the job. At work, your new boss is not looking to grade you or assign a value to you. She hired you because she thought you would work out, and she’s hoping that gets confirmed, and will look for signs that you’re doing well. Nobody wants a hire to fail. If you turn out, like most of us, to be good in some ways and not as good in others, they’ll try to route you into a job that makes use of your strengths if they can. But you definitely don’t need to knock everyone’s socks off coming out of the gate.

    1. Southern Yankee*

      The transition between education and profession is difficult exactly because of this shift in focus. Mistakes in class or on a test are how you are evaluated with a grade. Outstanding performance at a job is much more about succeeding in the job itself and being engaged, productive and adding value. It can be a hard transition, but maybe it will help to think of your boss as a coach teaching you to do the job rather than as a professor grading your performance?

    2. smoke tree*

      Yes, this is an important distinction and can be difficult to absorb. In school, feedback and grading are focused on you and your educational development, and it can be hard not to internalize that and base your self-worth on being a high achiever. At work, feedback is much more focused on the end result. Sure, your professional growth is a factor, but the ultimate goal is really external to you. So it’s not really possible to have the workplace equivalent of an A+ average, but it can really take some of the pressure off.

  20. Ella*

    If you can, try to get past thinking of this job as a favor your boss is bestowing on you! You’re exchanging your labor for money, just like everyone else who works a job is. And your boss hasn’t decided to overlook your lack of experience, they’ve decided that the benefits of hiring someone new to the workforce outweigh the downsides. And there certainly are benefits – filling a role with a less experienced worker can mean a cheaper salary to pay, an easier time filling the position, an easier time of training since you have fewer old habits to forget, or a greater potential for growth within your company since you have a full career in front of you.

  21. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s SuperAnon*

    Adding on to Alison’s comment about going slow: Don’t be afraid to ask how much time you have to answer a request. Some tasks require a 50% confidence answer, others a 90% confidence answer. The 50% confidence answer is a risk-based assessment, where you give an answer in a short amount of time based on the information you have readily on hand, and usually is good enough to work with. The 90% answer can take a few weeks or months to complete because it requires new information, and in some cases IS necessary. Your manager or team leader should be able to tell you at first which one is right, and over time you’ll be able to answer that for yourself.

    1. Southern Yankee*

      Great advice! I spent years early in my career not understanding it was OK to ask higher level management the how much time/how accurate question and had much unnecessary stress as a result!

  22. Free Meerkats*

    And realize that you’re not going to make mistakes only when you start, you’re going to make mistakes throughout your career. I’ve been in my field since 1982, I’m nationally recognized – people know me by face and name, which can be interesting when someone you don’t recognize greets you by name in a airport halfway across the country…

    And I still make mistakes. Small ones and big ones. Including one that caused us to violate our state permit and have public enforcement action taken. My boss’s boss had to explain to the mayor what happened and what happened was Free Meerkats dropped a ball.

    So learn to deal with mistakes and do your best to treat each one as a learning experience.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      And realize that you’re not going to make mistakes only when you start, you’re going to make mistakes throughout your career.

      Yup, pretty much. The mistakes will probably get lesser in terms of impact and severity (hopefully), but they’ll be mistakes nonetheless.

    2. goducks*

      Yes! Hopefully, when you’re starting out the types of mistakes you’ll make are pretty low-consequence. I’m now mid-career with the lattitude to make some real doozy mistakes, and I have. But, by now I’ve learned that most mistakes are recoverable, and that I’m (hopefully) judged on the bulk of my work, not just the errors.
      We all make mistakes no matter where we are in our career, the good thing about being a new grad is that you get to practice recovering from mistakes before the stakes are very high.

  23. Stephanie*

    I’m a manager and I expect people to make mistakes. With new people, a lot of the time, I realize, oh, I didn’t explain X to them, I need to do that (because I’m an in-context kind of person). And, isolated mistakes don’t really much color my impression of the person. Someone can even make a few “what the heck were they thinking?!” kind of mistakes and it doesn’t affect my overall view of them. A manager who’s going to judge a new person for a few mistakes is not a good manager. Do the manager the favor of assuming they’re a good manager until proven otherwise.

  24. agnes*

    Best wishes to you. Everybody makes mistakes. Own up to them and learn from them. You will be fine.

    Just another thought—you will have days where you are bored, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t worry. It’s normal. I say that because in your letter you mention a lot of expectations you have about your job–exciting, meaningful, loving the culture. If you have some days where it isn’t exciting, meaningful, and you don’t love the culture, it doesn’t mean that something is fundamentally wrong. It’s just one of those less than awesome days.


  25. High Tower on Capitol Hill*

    Try not to worry too much. On my first day in the office, the boss (in my case a Senator) called the office and said “hey it’s XXX. I then responded “I’m sorry, who is this?” and then my boss responded “This is Senator XXX, transfer me to X person.”

    I was so embarrassed, bright red. The key is to not let the mistakes get you down. The important thing is to keep your head up and move forward from your mistakes.

  26. CupcakeCounter*

    Mistakes happen and when they do, Alison’s responses are spot on. My go-to is “Got it, I’ll update the process docs to include X instead of Y”.
    The one thing left out (although other people have noted it) is when you both make the mistake and are the one to catch it. This happened to me earlier this year. I wasn’t sure if I was the one who made the original mistake simply because of some timing issues, but even if I didn’t make the actual error I didn’t do a proper job with some quick check figures and find it in a timely fashion so my actions after the fact made it a significantly bigger issue. As soon as I realized I walked straight into the bosses office and said “I found a significant error from December and it has X impact. We need to do X, Y, & Z but I’m not sure the process because it hasn’t happened in my time here. What is the next step?”
    If you know how to fix the error or have a plan in place mention that as well.
    “Hey Boss – while reviewing the Comma account I realized that I forgot to use the updated voucher template and there are 3 outstanding invoices for a total of $8k they owe us that we sent to the wrong location. I’ve deactivated the old account in the system and hid the bad template so it doesn’t happen again. I’ve reprinted the invoices with the correct information on them and they are ready to send but I wanted to verify with you that we hadn’t already written off the amounts in the ledger or sent different invoices to cover these charges since they are over 9 months old.”
    A good boss won’t hold mistakes against you IF you aren’t making the same mistakes over and over again. If you are, you need to look into why the same things keep happening.

  27. ABK*

    Starting a new job (and a career!) is like learning to ride a bike, or shoot a basket, or drive, or write a good paper, etc etc etc. Falling off the bike is part of the process and not a big deal! Just think about what you did, ask for how to do better, and get back on! Especially for the first 6 months of the job, you can mentally put yourself in “learning and getting better” boat and cut yourself a whole lot of slack. If you feel like you are making a ton of mistakes, it always helps to have a 1:1 with your manager and ask her opinion on your progress. Alison has some good letters about how to approach that discussion, too. Good Luck!

    1. ABK*

      Also, a huge difference between work and school is that at school you turn in a project, get evaluated, feel good or bad about that evaluation, then move on. Work projects aren’t really like that. You will get more feedback of additional things you need to do or consider or revise, even when your work was great. Things move slower, in general, and there is a lot of back and forth and revisions. It was a hard reality for me, 1. because if you don’t like a project, it probably isn’t just going to go away in a few weeks regardless of the quality, and 2. it’s easy to take constant revisions as a result of your work, which they aren’t, it’s just how jobs function.

  28. Sneaky Ninja for this one*

    I agree with all of what Alison said.

    Also, a mistake doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake.

    I’ve been cooking for years, just because I burn the spaghetti once in 30 years doesn’t mean I’m incompetent.
    Just because I forget the milk at the grocery store, doesn’t mean I’m incompetent.
    Forgetting an attachment on an email doesn’t mean I’m an incompetent email user.
    Doing a report wrong on your first try doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. You may have had a bad teacher, misunderstood something, thought you understood it, or it ended up having a lot of moving parts. Doing it wrong the 4th or 5th time through, though, may be an issue. Doing it right for a year, and then having a hiccup doesn’t mean you are incompetent. We all make mistakes.

    Mistakes aren’t incompetency until they become frequent and repeated.

  29. RUKiddingMe*

    Imposter syndrome:

    OP I am a pretty old gen-xer. I have two master’s and a doctorate. I am pretty much *the* expert in my research area.

    I’ve been at this for *almost* twice as long as you’ve bern alive (assuming a 21/22 year old new grad) and objectively reeeaaalllyyy good at it.

    I still feel like a fake.

  30. Alexander Graham Yell*

    Hey OP! I’ve got a few thoughts distilled from a good number of years in the workforce:

    1) What if instead of thinking you’d been “caught” (my imposter syndrome used that word a lot) you told yourself you were learning a new skill? And instead of waiting for it to happen, you sought it out? What I mean is that taking feedback well is a skill that can be developed, and people are more likely to give it to you when you seek it out (a reasonable amount). Learn what you can about how to do something, take a lot of notes, and try it. Then email whoever is supervising you and say, “I tried this, I have questions around x and y, do you have time to take a look at it?” You learn what you need to know, you position yourself as somebody who wants to learn, and you’re getting to set the terms for your first few rounds of feedback. This helps get you used to it WHILE you’re learning the rest of the workplace norms, so feedback becomes routine.

    2) It’s hard to remember because you’re coming out of a situation where you’re being graded and there isn’t anything in it for your professors if you exceed expectations vs. just meet them, but you being able to perform well is going to reflect well on your boss. They’re invested in making sure you do well, and so feedback isn’t just to criticize or say that you’re stuck being a certain kind of performer in the workplace. It’s to help you grow – so you can make new and different mistakes…which takes us to #3.

    3) The goal that’s helped me most in my career by FAR is not to avoid making mistakes. It’s to avoid making the same mistakes. Making mistakes shows I’m learning and trying and giving things a shot. Making the same mistakes means there’s something I’m not understanding and I should spend more time on that skill. Even in jobs that I felt were way beyond me, juggling concepts that made me feel like a 5 year old trying to figure out if train A is going to town B at 35 miles an hour and train C is going to town D at 70 miles an hour, what that means a cat weighs on the moon, I’ve had bosses who would sing my praises because what that goal means in a practical way is once I understand a concept, they can trust me on it completely.

    You’ll get there, OP. If you work on it, you’ll get there. :)

  31. phira*

    I’m a college instructor in a STEM field (where I previously worked as a research technician and then was a graduate student) and I hope that I can give OP some perspective from the other side of things!
    Students who are extremely afraid of messing up can be exhaustingly annoying. I don’t consider it a judgment on their character so much as an irritating set of behaviors they learned out of fear of looking “stupid” or “incompetent.”
    I think the best example of how this attitude can really interfere with my job is when a strong student with this fear asks for my help and attention when I’m occupied. Sometimes I’m busy tracking down extra reagents for students who need them to proceed in their experiment, or sometimes I’m helping a struggling student, and the last thing I need is to have to spend time with one of my completely competent students confirming that yes, that is what the step means, or yes, you should go on to the next step now that you’re done with the previous one, or no, we’re skipping that step like I told you at the beginning of class.
    And when those students do make mistakes, it’s similarly exhausting to reassure them afterwards that we’re not disappointed, that it doesn’t make them bad students, etc. Because they see themselves as “bad” when that happens, which tells me that they think that they’ve only succeeded academically thus far because they’ve avoided making mistakes, and that now making mistakes is going to tank them. Like OP, they know intellectually that people make mistakes and are just fine, but it’s like they believe that’s true for other people and won’t be true for themselves. And it’s emotionally draining to deal with as an instructor because it’s not my job to get students out of that mindset. (Not that it’s not part of my job to care about my students, but if you have such severe imposter syndrome, you need to be talking to a therapist.)
    So anyway, OP: If you frequently make mistakes that show you weren’t listening to your boss, or that you can’t handle the basics of your job after several months, or you do something incredible like create a massive safety hazard, then yeah, worry away. But please do yourself a favor and figure out how to relax about making mistakes. Even just thinking about some of my students who are like this has me needing a nap and a drink.

    1. Properlike*

      I’m so tired of students saying, “But I thought you’d be mad [that they made a mistake.]” I’m not your mother! My feelings are irrelevant. My feedback on what to fix is the thing you should focus on.

    2. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

      And our education system is very bad at teaching students to make good mistakes! When everything counts toward the final grade, there’s no room for messing up in the process of learning.

  32. Alton*

    Mistakes are going to happen sometimes. That’s life, and if you work full-time, that’s a lot of time in which mistakes can occur. I think the most important things are how you react and what you do to address them. What tends to frustrate people is when an employee/colleague keeps making mistakes (especially the same type of mistakes) without changing anything or learning from them. People will also want you to devote an appropriate level of attention to a task depending on how important it is. For example, it’s always a good idea to proofread your emails, but this can become especially important if you’re sending an important message to clients.

    It’s also good to be able to acknowledge when you made a mistake and show that you take feedback seriously. But I think it’s good to remember that there’s a healthy medium between being flippant and being too self-flagellating. It’s easy to feel like you have to prove yourself, but work mistakes usually aren’t personal or about you as a person. Sometimes it’s appropriate to express that you feel bad about something, but the important thing is to show consideration and a commitment to doing things well.

  33. Paige*

    I tell all of my interns that they will suck at their first job. It doesn’t matter how clever they are, how prepared, whatever. They will suck at it for quite a while. This has been my own experience, and that of MOST of my colleagues. I say this in hopes that it will:
    * Provide them with some relief – stop worrying so much, screwing up is normal
    * Recognize that if you want to do “one year of working before grad school to see what I want to do/am good at,” that this will not really be enough to develop any real capacity in a field. You’ll get a better idea of what you do/don’t want, but you’re still not functioning with any true proficiency yet. And that’s ok. But temper those expectations. Especially if those grad school applications are due in December, i.e., 7 months after you graduated college.
    * Use incompetence as a self evaluation tool. What was really hard for you to pick up? What was easy to correct? Which kinds of coworkers taught you the most? Which scared you? What kinds of tasks did you stink at vs. just disliked?
    * Discern which aspects of a job are skills and which are culture. For example, when meetings need to happen is a largely a culture thing, while scheduling and running one is a skill (plus culture). You can fail at one or both of these, but you will go far in your career once you figure out which kind of problem you’re dealing with.

    Most of the interns are a mixture of horrified and relieved. I hope this advice serves them well – I should follow up!

    1. Cap Hiller*

      This is so good. Everyone will suck at their first job, especially when we look back and see how much better we could have done. But it’s all a learning experience!

  34. Oregano*

    I wanted to add, as someone often paralyzed by fear of failure, that I was trained to see *any* mistake as a SERIOUS FAILURE and have a huge panic response accordingly. What’s helped me is to think through how serious a problem something *really* is, then work to bring my emotional response in line with my rational assessment of the situation. Progress has been slow, but it seems to be helping me.

  35. Rainbow Roses*

    Ask questions if you are unsure. Even if it’s the tiniest thing you might be embarrassed to ask.
    In one of my first jobs, I made the mistake of trying to figure things out myself instead of asking and got fired. They’d rather you bug them with questions than make the same mistakes over and over.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Amend that – try to figure it out yourself if you can, but ask if you can’t find the answer in under 5 minutes or are not 100% confident that you have found the right answer. Because you also don’t want to be the person who never tries to figure it out for yourself. If you’re pretty sure but not 100%, then ask “Hi, I think this is the right way to do this/answer/etc. Can you confirm?”, which shows that you tried but are still not sure.

      Take notes of all answers you receive – when I’m training someone, I would always rather they ask. But if I have to give the same information again, I’m going to start being annoyed around the 3rd time I’ve had to give that answer for that question.

      1. londonedit*

        Yeah, bosses want people who will say ‘I just wanted to check which form I should be filling in for the llama grooming invoices. I know it’s kept on the server, but when I looked in the folder I found two different forms – can you tell me which is the correct one to use?’ They don’t want people who will think ‘Oh no…I know this form is meant to be on the server, but I don’t know which one to use…argh…I can’t ask my boss, they’ll think I’m stupid…I’ll just use this one, I’m sure it’s fine…’ and then process 50 invoices incorrectly, or people who will sit there paralysed with indecision and just decide not to process the llama grooming invoices today because they don’t know what to do.

        1. smoke tree*

          Or the person who just keeps asking their boss every time, instead of making a note of which form it should be so they can remember.

          1. Media Monkey*

            or the person who didn’t even check on the server but just asks every time (and probably interrupts too!). don’t be That Guy

  36. animaniactoo*

    One note of differentiation – all of Alison’s responses reference what you’ll change/do differently in the future. But it’s important to note which mistakes are not worthy of that level of response. Sometimes, a simple mistake is a very simple mistake and referencing a change for future becomes an overreaction, too much for the moment.

    So, for instance, if the mistake is a typo and you typed a 4 instead of a 3 – the response might be much less future focused “Oops! I’m sorry about that, glad you caught it. I’ll have the revised version ready for you in [X time frame]”. But the other thing you want to do with this piece is to track your mistakes for yourself. So that if you spot a pattern in these small minor mistakes, that’s when it would be appropriate to say “Sorry! I’ve noticed recently that I keep making this small mistake, I’m going to be on top of checking for it going forward.”

  37. Utoh!*

    Yeah, I’ve made small and big mistakes in my over 30 year career, regardless of how much you know, mistakes do happen from time to time. I think the reason why we make mistakes is to learn from them, I can honestly say that if I had done everything perfectly in my many jobs, I never would have become the type of critical thinking, detail-oriented employee I am now. Good luck, go forth and fall on your face! :)

    1. Utoh!*

      I wanted to add that I work with someone who refuses to make a decision even though he has all the experience and skills to do so. Nothing that I or our manager does has been able to help him overcome his fear of making a mistake, he *has* to rely on someone else to do it for him. What is interesting is that this is not the case if it’s a decision that needs to be made within his tiny sphere (web development), which no one else on our team knows much about. I think he’s fine if no one but him can see his mistakes. I think he even struggles there as well because his second-guessing himself (for no good reason) causes him to take far longer to complete a project or task.

  38. TootsNYC*

    If you focus on the blame, shame, guilt–or on defending yourself–you are cheating everyone out of the opportunity to learn.

    It’s your first job–any boss worth ANYthing is going to expect you to make mistakes.
    I always regard a mistake as an opportunity to teach AND to learn–when my employee makes a mistake, it’s often because of something *I* need to learn to do better, like communicate, provide resources, realize someone isn’t fully informed. (So…internalize that not all mistakes are your fault–they can be someone else’s creation, even if you are the one who did it.)

    The ONLY time I mind when someone makes a mistake is in their reaction. Do they distract themselves from learning, with shame, guilt, blame, defensiveness? That frustrates me as a boss, because it wastes time, wastes energy, and interferes with growth.

    You’re coming from a place where you were focused on learning. Can you see this the same way?

    And if you’re really struggling, i’m going to suggest digging into why that is a bit.
    Do you come from a punitive background?
    Or, do you come from a background in which you were praised when you felt you didn’t deserve it?
    Or one in which you easily did everything “right,” and you’ve never known what would happen if you made a mistake?

    It might help also to try to find some mental exercises you can do–I love Alison’s suggestion that you literally say those phrases out loud as practice. Some other affirmations might help as well.

  39. Fiona*

    For the most part, people don’t remember the mistakes you make. They DO remember how you handled those mistakes. For example, if you are overly cavalier (“Eh, whatever”) or you blame other people (“So-and-so should have checked it!”) or are exasperatingly over-apologetic (“I’m so so sorry, please take my first born child”), those things resonate far more than the mistake itself.

    What people want is for you to own your mistakes, acknowledge whatever inconvenience or damage it caused, and lay out the process by which it won’t happen again. Then they want to go back to their day. In your position, I can see the potential for being over-apologetic. Try to remember that if you make a big production of tearfully and anxiously apologizing, you end up putting the onus on your manager to comfort/reassure you and that’s not their job.

    You’ll do great. Good luck!

  40. TootsNYC*

    I think what scares me the most is the thought of disappointing my new boss who has so kindly and graciously taken a chance by giving me (a new grad) the opportunity to join the team.

    Your boss isn’t doing you some huge amazing favor.

    She has gotten herself a bright and capable person to take on a junior role (so, lower salary, which is good for the budget; good energy in the office). There is a business reason to hire someone, anyone; there is a business reason to hire a beginner; and there is a business reason she picked you over other applicants. None of this is a favor. None of it.

    “Kindly and graciously” generally have no place in a hiring decision, not from either direction. And if your boss is decent, it won’t have. (even if you were an ex-con who had trouble getting a job, and this was a bit of a risk taken in order to help ex-cons get work, it still wouldn’t be a personal favor)

    Believe me, if it were a favor, the company would probably not allow her to hire you. (companies who encourage the hiring of people with typical roadblocks, like rookies or those with physical or intellectual disabilities or criminal records or whatever, are doing it because it is their corporate goal–which makes this not a favor)

    Try to coach yourself into seeing the boss as NOT your parent, NOT someone you need to please, NOT someone who will be “disappointed in you.”

    And that might also point you to an area you might want to unpack–how much do you focus on whether you’re pleasing an outside/superior authority, like a parent, professor, boss, etc.? And how can you feel more confident there?

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Try to coach yourself into seeing the boss as NOT your parent, NOT someone you need to please, NOT someone who will be “disappointed in you.”

      This needs to be embroidered on a pillow for all those new to the workforce.

      They’re your boss, they’re in charge of managing a process/department/project in most setups. They aren’t emotionally invested in you on that level! They may be annoyed with mistakes but it’s not about you, it’s about the annoyance of having to stop what they’re doing at any given time but it’s fleeting in most situations. If they grind an axe like some scorned lover over errors and start feeling “disappointment” in you personally, then that’s a toxic workplace.

      1. Properlike*

        THIS. Needs to be embroidered on a pillow for college students, too. “I was afraid you’d be mad,” is never the way to approach a professor.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Sadly my experience with teachers has been awful and I’ve seen them react with “disappointment” and in that “I’m mad you can’t get this right, what’s wrong with you?”, so I’m slow to even agree on that front.

          Boss =/= your parents, teachers, coaches, etc. Those other “superior figures” are invested in something deeper, they’re invested in getting the best out of you. A good boss is not going that deep, most will care about you as a human but they have boundaries for a reason, they don’t want to be viewed as a parental figure or a professor [we could go back to speaking about how it’s abnormal to refer to your boss as Mr/Ms and the whole sir/ma’am thing gets all sorts of bad fussy kickback!]

  41. tired anon*

    I totally know this fear (even though it’s been quite awhile since I was new to the workforce!). The only thing that made me comfortable with making mistakes — or as comfortable as one can and should be, I guess — was … making them. Seeing the “consequences” (which were usually just corrections from my boss), and making sure to keep that feedback in mind going forward.

    One thing that I don’t know where I picked it up but that I’ve found very helpful is to ask myself, “Will anyone other than me remember this in a year?” I remember every mistake because I’m mortified, but honestly, no one else does. Unless a mistake is MASSIVE the most likely outcome is that you course correct, carry that knowledge forward, and that’s it.

  42. Colette*

    There are 3 types of mistakes I find big problems.
    1. You make a mistake once, I tell you about it, you do it again, I tell you again, and so on. Making the same mistake over and over (even when they’re minor mistakes individually) is a problem.
    2. You make a mistake because you were doing something that you should never have been doing in the first place. For example, you find your coworker’s higher-level job more interesting than your job, so you decide to do her tasks and make a mess of them. That’s a big problem.
    3. You make a mistake and hide it. In this case it’s not the mistake itself, it’s the fact that I can’t trust you to tell me the truth.

    OP, it doesn’t sound like you’re likely to do any of these, which is good. As Alison said, everyone makes mistakes. Most of them are minor and easily fixed – and often, they’re an opportunity to figure out how the process is broken.

  43. Super B*

    Re-read your emails 3x before clicking send. Double check your work 3x before submitting it to your boss. Attention to details like dates, spelling of names, etc – go through docs line by line and see if it’s where it should be. I wish I had made those things a habit right away when I first started my first office job many years ago, it would have saved me a lot of time and headache back then. Attention to detail is an acquired skill and a habit you can create, and only you can do that for yourself.

  44. CaliCali*

    I remember this feeling well, but I also remember another feeling, and that was noticing that everyone else makes mistakes too. The sad thing was that my first reaction was judgmental — “all these screwups are allowed to still keep their jobs???” — but as I got older and wiser and a bit more gracious (and a bit less self-critical), I realized that if you jettisoned everyone who made errors, you’d never have anyone working anywhere. We’re human. We’re flawed. And that’s so much better than everyone being perfect.

  45. Heidi*

    Congratulations on the new job, OP. When I make a mistake, I force myself to think, “Is this going to matter by tomorrow/next week/next month?” A lot of the time, a mistake can be fixed by the end of the day without disrupting or inconveniencing anyone else any longer than that. If my imaginary tomorrow shows no impact from the mistake, I actually feel a little better. Imagining the end of the mistake forces me to start thinking about how I’m going to fix it rather than dwelling on kicking myself. It’s totally possible that I’m the only person comforted by this, but you never know what weird advice is going to resonate.

  46. une autre Cassandra*

    As a chronic over-apologizer I applaud you for wanting to avoid developing the habit at work. When the (sometimes very strong) urge to Just Keep Apologizing threatens to steamroll my better instincts it can help to remind myself that putting my colleagues in the position of feeling responsible for MY feelings is a crappy thing to layer on top of my mistake. The best apology is to own the mistake, learn from it, and move on. All that good stuff. You sound like you’re going to be an excellent coworker—congratulations on graduating and landing a great job!

  47. Burts Knees*

    I’m a couple of years older than you OP, and there was one surprising lesson I’ve learned along the way, 80% of being good at a lot of jobs is showing up on time, and being a pleasant person to be around. I was a high achieving student, who then went on and was great at my job and got promoted quickly, the whole nine yards. And then I switched professions, and I was not good. I wasn’t horrific, fire immediately bad, but I made a lot of what looked like sloppy mistakes because my mind just doesn’t work the way I needed it to for that job. And yet, I got recommended and hired for project after project because I showed up every day on time, I was friendly and nice to other coworkers, and when people caught my mistakes I said “I’m so sorry, let me fix that” and then I did. As soon as I had enough money saved up I quit that career and found something much better suited to my skills, but it was a surprising lesson in how much it actually doesn’t actually matter to a lot of people if you are 80% great at your job or 99% great at your job, if you handle your mistakes in a professional way. Which is a lesson I’ve taken with me to other jobs when I make a mistake and I realize that I’m used to feeling that 99% percent great at my job and suddenly it’s 95%, it’s actually okay, just keep showing up on time, be kind and professional to your coworkers, fix mistakes as they happen, and you’ll be a rockstar.

  48. Samwise*

    I think too that you are personalizing the employer-employee relationship, which can also ramp up anxiety about mistakes.

    Your boss was not kind and gracious in hiring you. Managers don’t hire people out of the goodness of their hearts; they hire people who are competent, skilled, and knowledgeable. The chance your manager is taking is that you don’t have lots of years of directly applicable experience, but you DO have lots of experience learning new things (= you are successfully graduating with an undergraduate degree!), which is really really important. BTW, you have already demonstrated to your boss that you’re serious about this by asking for resources/readings. Plus One for you!!

    Your boss may be a kind and gracious person, but hiring you was a business decision. You will not be letting your boss down in any personal way if you make mistakes.

    And… congratulations!

  49. JSPA*

    Have a set of suitable responses ready, with a focus on, what’s the procedure now / making it go right in the future. (vs on “how I suck” or “how I want to die” or “how you must not trust me” nor even, “how i reached that wrong result, and I want you to absolve me for the steps I took in getting there.”)

    Use liberally for any but the most serious events. (For examples serious, see Colette’s post, above.)

    “Oh no! How should that have worked?”
    “Is there a good rule of thumb about when to ask someone, vs. following a prior example?”
    “Do I need to send an apology email to the vendor, or just straighten it out ASAP?”
    “Let me make a note of the specifics right away.”
    “Ouch. Can we talk about how to avoid these sorts of newbie mistakes at our next meeting?”

    If they say, “don’t make this exact mistake again, but don’t worry, there are always a few mistakes, they shake out naturally,” be ready and willing to say, “OK, that’s a relief” or, “if only there were a shortcut–I want to be reliable right now, not next month!” but then let it drop. Don’t make them do your emotional labor.

  50. Clay on my apron*

    OP, you sound great. Good luck in your new role.

    Some advice from my side.

    Take detailed notes when you get training or instructions, and refer back to them.

    When you’re given a task, check when it’s due and what the priority is.

    Admit when you don’t know something.

    When things don’t make sense or you get inconsistent information, ask.

    Sometimes it’s tempting to ask someone other than your manager for the information you need, especially if they are busy, but run this by your manager first. You could get the wrong information otherwise. Sometimes people have an outdated view or they don’t have context.

    When you have questions, think through what you want to say, make sure it’s not already in your notes, and communicate clearly. Uncertainty can lead to waffling.

    Don’t panic. Nobody will expect you to know everything or get everything right. It’s how you handle the situation that makes you look professional or otherwise.

    Have fun!

  51. Ada*

    Mistakes are SUUUUUPER normal! Let me put it this way: most of my job wouldn’t exist if mistakes weren’t a regular occurrence. We have to account for human error at every step of the process, so I’d estimate that a good 75% of my job is looking for, catching, correcting, and documenting errors. As long as you handle them well, you should be fine (assuming you’re in a healthy office environment).

    Main things to keep in mind are:
    – Own mistakes as soon as you find them
    – Replace “sorry” with “thank you” when reacting to feedback for most mistakes (caveat: do apologize if real damage was done)
    – Do what you can to correct the problem
    – Try to come up with a plan to prevent the mistake from happening
    – Implement said plan (the one way to actually make me upset about a mistake is if I keep catching the same kind of mistake from you repeatedly even after I’ve alerted it to you multiple times)

  52. EH*

    I love the camaraderie of discussing Impostor Syndrome – there are so many of us who have it!

    The thing that helped me most with mine was having a name for it. Then when I’d spot myself imagining that I was going to make a mistake and be fired for it and then lose my apartment and not be able to care for my cats and and and (seriously. This chain usually ends with “and then I will die alone in a box under a bridge and nobody will care or even notice!!!” – classic catastrophizing), I’d pause and tell myself, “there’s that impostor syndrome again!” It helped break the pattern and give me a little distance so I wasn’t as overwhelmed by the mental spiral anymore.

    I don’t think it ever really goes away, but I’ve gotten better and better and spotting it before I’m totally panicked, and it comes up less and less. Therapy helped too, of course, but having a name was the first big thing for me.

    Good luck, OP! We’re rooting for you.

  53. MakemistakesallthetimeandIhave lived*

    Like many others, I used to live in fear of making a mistake because I was the only who ever did. But there is a church nearby that posts sayings on its reader board. Here are a few that I have found helpful:
    1. A mistake is an event; not a personality defect.
    2. You are not stupid; you are just new at this.
    3. Just because you are struggling does not mean you are failing.
    4. At what point does the past stop affecting the now.

    And another:
    1. You are not the makes you have made.

    Please be kind to yourself.

  54. ForTheLoveOfSpreadsheets*

    Some tricks I’ve learned to stop over-apologizing are: 1) replace the word sorry with something else that means the same (I use apologies). This forces you to be more intentional with your languages. 2) Coming up with a new introductory phrase, something like “do you have a minute?” rather than apologizing. The only time I use sorry is when I’m apologizing for interrupting something because the house is burning down.

    1. Story Nurse*

      Many people in my house are over-sorry-ers, and we’ve started trying to consciously say “I feel bad” instead, because often what we’re trying to express is our own pain and anxiety over having messed up. At work I’m less forthcoming with my feelings, obviously, but rephrasing it to myself as “I feel bad” lets me handle my feelings on my own and take that part out of the equation before I go talk to my boss.

  55. Slow Gin Lizz*

    One thing I’ve found that really helps me focus on getting out of myself and not taking feedback personally is to realize that the goal is the project or the outcome, not necessarily my part in it. So I see criticism as a way for me to focus more on what the bosses want for the project. I’ll say, “I did X. Would you prefer Y or Z?” or “I wasn’t sure which way to go with this so I tried X, but I can do it Y or Z instead if that’s how you think it should be” or even “Oops, I did X but now I can see that your way, Y, is clearer/better.”

    Focusing on the project/outcome really helps me get out of my own head. Sure, I may have done something incorrectly, but as long as it’s not unfixable it’s not a huge deal. And sometimes doing something incorrectly can help you or the team understand what’s better or even find a better solution than the one they already had in mind! Not all mistakes are bad!

  56. Story Nurse*

    Another anxious perfectionist here! With OCD, which makes it extra fun.

    A thing that I have been using in several areas of my life is the basic setup of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: accept where I am, visualize where I want to be, commit to acting like the person I want to be. For example, I accept that I bite my nails, I want to be someone with beautiful nails, I’m committing to do my best to stop biting them and take better care of them.

    What that might look like for you, OP, is accepting that you are new and more likely to make mistakes because you’re new; visualizing yourself as a confident, capable member of your work team; and working toward acting like that confident, capable person. If you can’t quite visualize yourself that way yet, make up an imaginary mentor, or get to know your colleagues and (quietly, to yourself) select someone who is clearly admired and respected by the team whose qualities you want to emulate. Then check in with yourself: would Capable!OP/Imaginary Awesome Person/Real Awesome Person describe being hired as a “favor”, or would they see it as a reasonable outcome of the time and effort they’ve put into skill-building and job-researching? If they made a mistake, would they scramble to hide it or bluster to downplay it, or would they calmly and sincerely own up to it? It’s like a personalized “WWJD”.

    If you can act emotionally secure even when you’re feeling deeply insecure, eventually you will develop genuine emotional security, and in the meantime you’ll have earned the trust and respect of your colleagues. Fake it till you make it!

    There’s good advice above about finding a thing to fail at, and I recommend doing it daily if you can. Mine is kanji study through Wanikani, where I have to accept that my average on the daily quiz is 84% correct, no matter how much I want it to be 100%. A friend did a pen-and-ink sketch of hir new baby every day for a year, and then a little five-minute watercolor painting of a flower every day for a year. The great thing about daily practice is that you can see yourself improve even as you continue to be imperfect. After six months of Wanikani, I’m at level 10 and about to mark my first items as “I know this so well that you should never quiz me on it again”. My friend’s paintings and drawings improved immensely. So you don’t just get practice ruefully shaking your head and saying “maybe next time”—you get an understanding of what increasing competence FEELS like, what confidence and security FEEL like, and that is so, so valuable for faking them when you don’t feel them.

    Finally, an anecdote that may help: I was fired from my first job in publishing (an internship when I was in high school), figured (with the bruised-ego hubris of the young) that my name would be blackballed and I would never work in the field again, and majored in computer science in college so I could work in tech instead. But I kept writing and editing, and kept hanging out with writers and editors, and did a freelance gig here and a volunteer gig there… and now I’ve been a magazine editor and book reviewer for 17 years, covering the publishing industry and very much a part of it and respected within it. So even if things do go badly—and I expect they won’t, as you sound much more prepared for your first job than I was for mine—it is never the end of the world. There are always more opportunities out there and you can find one that puts you on the path to success.

  57. Beckie*

    In dealing with your imposter syndrome, something to remind yourself is that imposter syndrome is something that’s DONE to us. Whether because of your sex or your race/ethnicity or your socioeconomic background or the college you went to — imposter syndrome is something that individuals and society at large do to others.

    Keep repeating that to yourself until you believe it. Work on discerning when you can trust your own judgement, and when you need to learn more about X in order to make a decision. Because you’ve gotten this far already, and there are definitely plenty of areas in which YOU are the expert.

  58. gecko*

    When you’re figuring out how worried to be about making a mistake, there three factors: the stakes of the situation, what would happen to fix the mistake, and the likelihood of the mistake. If you’re in school, you know all of that really well–by graduating with a bachelor’s, you’ve been doing it for sixteen years! Moving into a new world, that’s going to be completely out of wack.

    First–the stakes. It’s not likely that as a new grad there are significantly high stakes to your job. Those stakes may be more along the lines of, a hit to your reputation, or wasted employee time.

    Then, the fixing of the mistake in most cases involves figuring out that there was a mistake and communicating that there was a mistake. Honestly–that covers a lot.

    And for the likelihood of screwing up, well, that depends. You’re very likely to make many, many low-stakes mistakes. When I first got to my current job I went to the completely wrong building for my first team meeting. A low-stakes and easily-fixed mistake!

    It’s somewhat less likely that you’ll make a higher-stakes mistake. The reason is precisely that mistakes are anticipated and accounted-for. If a really serious screw-up happens at a software company, for instance, the response might be a root-cause analysis: how did some bug in the software happen? The root cause is not “uhhh, well, Fergus is an idiot and needs to not be an idiot.” It’s, “Fergus made a mistake, but X process and Y process let it get as far as it did. Since Fergus is human, what can we change about X and Y so this mistake doesn’t get as far as it did?”

    So get clear about this, and recognize that if you feel like you’ve just screwed up, the fix always begins with recognizing it and continues with communicating about it.

    And to end on a note of reassurance, this will get easier. Again, you basically left a 16-year-long career, in which you had expertise, to start something completely new–you’ll get a sense of mastery and understanding again eventually (and probably soon).

  59. MiddleGenerationMillennial*

    Hi OP. Don’t worry: mistakes are inevitable! Even your managers will make mistakes. What you should be mindful of is how to learn from them, holding yourself accountable, and avoid repeating the same mistakes going forward.

    It’s better to make smaller mistakes or even one big mistake, as long as *you don’t make a habit of them.*

    1. MiddleGenerationMillennial*

      Also: everything is fixable. This was a key piece of advice I received when I was a couple of years into working a “real job”. :)

  60. a clockwork lemon*

    OP, as someone relatively new to Big Girl Office World I have two pieces of advice for you:

    1) Manage your expectations about your own performance. My first goal-setting and review session I had set a wildly unrealistic set of benchmarks for myself against my manager’s advice (100% accuracy on goat-to-llama exchange calculations where you’re really kicking butt if you’re hovering around 70% accuracy) and got a “needs improvement” when she held me to my own unrealistic standards.

    The next time goal-setting came around I set a much more reasonable benchmark (75% accuracy) and have been meeting & exceeding my own targets. This might not be AS feasible for you if you’re in an industry with standardized metrics for employees to meet, but it made a big difference in how I view my own productivity and my role on my team–and my boss knows that I can set realistic and achievable targets for independent projects I’ve been asked to work on with other managers.

    2) Don’t be afraid to ask tons of questions about why things are done, and propose changes if they make sense (as long as you can hear “no” gracefully)! It’s hard to tell at first when things have a reason for why they’re done, and when things are done a certain way just because that’s how it’s always been. Assuming you’re in a relatively healthy work environment and there’s not an actual reason for why something is done a certain way, it’s unlikely that anyone will mind you tweaking the workflow a bit for your own assigned duties.

  61. Susan*

    When you’ve made a mistake, try to bring it to whoever knows with the following covered:
    1. What happened
    2. How it happened
    3. What’s the impact
    4. What can be done to deal with the impact
    5. What should be done to avoid this same mistake in the future.

    How formal the answers are to the above need to be communicated will vary based on the scale of the problem. Answers to 4 and 5 are mostly where you will be looking for feedback, but all steps might involve explanation of where you got the information.

    You don’t need to have all of the perfect answers to the above to go to the responsible party, but there should be some rough idea. I definitely agree – when a big enough problem is recognized, it needs to be surfaced. But taking a little time to have answers to the above will help.

    I also want to emphasize – don’t take too much blame. It’s something I fight with, 20+ years into my career.

  62. Argh!*

    A lot of parents of younger people were falsely given the idea that in order to instill self-respect and confidence in their children they should praise the child and not the action. This has had a paradoxical effect, because children take mistakes and criticisms as judgements against their competence or potential.

    If you brought a drawing to your parents and they said, “What a wonderful drawing. You’re such a good artist!” you can’t be blamed for anxiety and lack of self-confidence. You can change it going forward, though. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, may give you some food for thought on how to get over this mis-training.

  63. Matilda Jefferies*

    OP, have you read Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming”? She talks about imposter syndrome, and the importance of making mistakes. Melinda Gates does as well, in “The Moment of Lift.” I mean, if even Michelle Obama has suffered from imposter syndrome, it’s a pretty safe bet that all of us have at some point! I think you know that on some level already, based on your letter. But the only way to truly understand it is through experience. Once you’ve made a mistake or two at work, you’ll realize that it’s almost never as awful as you feared. Good luck!



  64. Coffee Owlccountant*

    OP, right now I am you – I’ve been in the workforce a solid 15 years, but I’ve just in the last month moved into a new role with really really different responsibilities than I’ve ever done before… and I’m messing up. I’m struggling a lot! This will happen to you to some degree. At some point in your career (probably very soon!), you are going to find yourself flailing and making mistakes. I’m typing this right now as a small emotional break for myself to recover from a Very Large Mistake I made THIS MORNING! I fixed it and we’re all moving on. Some advice for you:

    1) You’ve already started the first point – come to terms with the fact that you ARE going to make mistakes! You are already ahead of curve because you recognized bits of yourself that might hold you back, you wrote to Alison, you’re reading the excellent comments from people who know just what you’re feeling, and you’re already doing the mental and emotional work to understand yourself. This is honestly great work! Please know that you are doing awesome already!

    2) When you make mistakes and they’re discovered either by you or someone else, take a breath, a minute, and a walk if you need to. Unless there is an actual fire burning and requires actual water to be poured on it or your new job is in emergency services, it’s really unlikely that two or three minutes to compose yourself is going to cause anybody to die.

    3) When you make mistakes, take the opportunity to reflect on WHY you made the mistake. Were you missing key information? Did you understand or interpret something incorrectly? Were you rushing? Did you neglect or ignore some kind of check that is in place to keep you from making the mistake? Then think about what you should do to avoid making that mistake again.

    4) Try to start thinking about your mistakes as a training opportunity for someone new! Frame things in the mindset of “if I were training someone to do my job, what are the pitfalls I can help them avoid?” and document, document, document. When you’re eventually promoted and someone new steps into your shoes, you will both be grateful for the mistakes that you’ve already made.

  65. just trying to help*

    Something I learned a long time ago which as a perfectionist like myself who shares some of OP’s fears – Done is better than perfect. Be open to constructive criticism, recommendations, and corrections. It is not personal, it is professional. It has nothing to do with your self worth or inherent value as a human being. It is simply about something you did, or did not do.

  66. You can call me flower, if you want to*

    When I was in my first job out of college I made a decent-sized mistake. (Something was supposed to be sent out and wasn’t.) When our dept. director asked about it, I immediately owned up, apologized, didn’t make excuses, told her how I would fix it and how I would change going forward to make sure it didn’t happen again. She was so impressed by my response. How you handle yourself when you fail or make an error is a skill, and many people haven’t worked on that skill, especially perfectionists because they have never needed to. It was 6 years ago, and it’s still really memorable experience for me. Work on developing the skill of accepting responsibility for mistakes, it’s really important. You’re going to be awesome! Good luck!

  67. Rick Tq*

    Mistakes are part of life. Identify the issue, fix it, and move on. The real problems come up when a Blame Storm rolls in because nobody will take ownership of their part of the error.

    One other thing: If you *always* own your errors publicly it makes it MUCH harder for a coworker to blame their mistakes on you.

  68. C.*

    I agree with Alison completely. Generally knowing that people make mistakes is one thing, but viscerally understanding–and believing–that mistakes are what make you grow is an entirely different thing.

    One other thing I would add is reminding yourself that your boss didn’t do you some kindly pittance to bring you on to their team. They chose you. Over other qualified candidates. They chose you because they see something in you that they think is a great fit for their office / work / industry. Having the mentality that someone is doing you a favor feeds directly into your fear of making mistakes, disappointing them, etc.

  69. Keyboard Cowboy*

    Allison’s suggestion about thinking through what you are really afraid of happening if you make a mistake is SUCH A GOOD ONE.

    I have generalized anxiety disorder. I treat it with cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves identifying “cognitive distortions” – that is, when what I’m anxious about is out of sync with reality. This often boils down to me saying, “I am afraid that if X happens, Y and Z will happen.” Usually Y and Z are totally unrealistic, like, “my boss will hate me and not tell me so” or “none of my friends will want to speak to me anymore”. With those fears on paper, exposed to the light of day, it’s easy to see how ridiculous they are! I can then apply my logic brain (instead of my anxiety brain) and state what I think would realistically happen – usually “my boss will ask me to improve this for next time” or “my friends will not notice or care about this minor incident”. Sometimes, too, with the anxious fears out in the open, I can see that even if they are pretty likely to happen, they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things (for example, “a stranger will think my blouse is ugly” – who cares? or, “my coworker who I don’t get along with will be unpleased” – it was going to happen either way, we don’t get along).

    It’s incredibly effective – and if you’re still not convinced, what works for me is to also assign a likelihood percentage to each anxious thought. That is, I can think critically about how likely it is for my boss to hate me (1% – maybe I really hit a nerve) and not tell me (0% – he’s an immaculate professional and would point out disputes), or how likely it is for my friends to not want to speak to me anymore (0% – really, I just got excited about something in the group chat, they don’t care).

    1. Vax is my disaster bicon*

      I also have GAD, and while I still get anxious about mistakes, learning to identify and untwist cognitive distortions has made a huge difference for me. (Well, that and medication.) I think that a lot of people could benefit from those resources regardless of their mental health status—most people get a little caught up in catastrophizing and the like from time to time!

      On a deeper level, therapy and related work has helped me to restructure my beliefs about myself as a person. (Coming out helped too.) It’s weird how such deeply personal processes can effect my work life, but things really have gotten a lot better!

  70. Gaia*

    As someone who is, by nature, a perfectionist I received two very important pieces of advise that really helped me in my career:

    1. Perfection is the enemy of good/great. Perfection isn’t possible on a large scale. And seeking it will prevent you from ever seeing even good/great results. Seek great and then seek continuous improvement.

    2. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying and you aren’t growing. Failure is not bad. Mistakes are not inherently bad. Make mistakes, fail. Then learn from them and grow. How you respond to mistakes and failure is far more important than the mistake or failure itself.

  71. Cap Hiller*

    Hi OP – totally get where you’re coming from, as a 36yo who’s glad to be on the senior side in her workplace (Capitol Hill is pretty young). Honestly, it will take making some mistakes to help you get comfortable with it. I also would prepare yourself for the possibility that you won’t react ideally to it – stress is a bitch. If you are a woman, I’ve talked to a lot of women and have experienced myself getting emotional at work when I was stressed – not necessarily “sad.”

    I also want to share that a lot of times it won’t be an explicit “mistake” – you’ll just realize you’re not doing your work to your boss’s expectation or liking or whatever. That’s when you’ll need this growth mindset that it’s not some deficiency in you, that instead you just need to strategize and figure out how to get the boss where he or she wants to go.

    As you navigate the workplace, these things will require looking at yourself pretty objectively. I struggle with that a lot in my personal life, and I may have bad days at work during which I wallow a little in the “I suck” mode – but the next day I’m working and trying to figure out how to improve.

    OP all to say that I agree with the others – remember you WILL make mistakes, they do NOT define you, that the integrity of how you do your work will both prevent mistakes as well as inform how you handle mistakes, and that you’ll succeed by keeping perspective, staying calm, and showing up the next day and the next day ready to do your best.

  72. Little Tin Goddess*

    I realized thw other day that I made kind of a biggie mistake on 2 accounts at work last year. Yes, a year ago. I realized I bound two insurance policies with a completely wrong date that was a year off. I emailed my boss to tell him about it, took complete and utter responsibility and said our only thing to do here is cancel and rewrite the policies and send them out to the agent, letting her know what happened. He said “okay, go a head”. I had it in writing to CYA and that’s what I did. No words about it after. He knows my mistakes are few and far between and that I take responsibility when I find out about it.

    You’ll do okay if you take responsibility and learn from your mistakes.

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