What to Do When You Screw Up

We're searching for top company cultures to be featured on our annual list. Think your company has what it takes? Apply Now »

Life can be surprisingly forgiving of screw-ups. I should know. I’ve got a long history of screwing up. Just ask my wife; she’ll tell you stories … um, on second thought, better not get her started.

Anyway, I’ve screwed up jobs, investments, relationships, home repairs, major appliances  – you name it, I’ve screwed it up. And yet, I’m still alive and doing pretty well, I might add. So what’s the trick to bouncing back and surviving your screw-ups?

If I said I knew, I’d be lying, but looking back, I can definitely tell you what worked for me. It’s a six-step program. Think of it as something of a 12-step program, except abbreviated because, like me, you probably have the attention span of a hummingbird.

Step 1. Admit you’re a screw-up.

Ignore all those dumb platitudes like “This too shall pass,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” They don’t apply to you for one unfortunate reason: screw-ups have a nearly inhuman capacity for self-loathing.

Don’t believe me? Next time you do something dumb, try not to beat yourself up. No, I’m not kidding, go ahead and try. Try forgiving yourself because, after all, you’re only a flesh-and-blood human, right? Go for it.

Just be sure to bookmark this article because, when you wake up the next morning and realize I was right – that it didn’t do you any good – you’ll want to come back so you can move on to the next step.

Step 2. Learn to apologize … a lot.

The worst thing you can do is double down on your mistakes by getting defensive or making believe it didn’t happen. Face it; it happened. So swallow your pride, bite the bullet and learn to say you’re sorry. It rarely works, but that way you can move on at least knowing you tried to make amends, do the right thing and be a better person.

True, it isn’t much comfort when you’ve lost your job, your girlfriend, or a boatload of cash on a bad investment, but you’ll need to grasp onto whatever shred of anything positive you can think of just to get up in the morning, knowing full well you’re going to do the same thing all over again.

That is, until you finally say to yourself, “Enough is enough!”

Step 3. Wake up and smell the dysfunction.

When you’ve gone round and round like this for long enough, you’ll eventually get good and fed up with the whole vicious-cycle thing and decide to actually do something about it. That’s called bottoming out. Look, I know it sounds terrible, and I’m not going to lie to you and say it won’t hurt – it will … a lot – but don’t worry. It’ll get worse.

What you do next is this: Get some quality alone time (sober, that’s important), think back, and write down everything your parents or anyone else ever said or did to you when you were young that might have helped to make you this way.

Try it a few times. If you can’t figure it out, that’s okay. Find a good shrink and pay him a few bucks. Yes, I know it’s expensive. It’s worth it. Do whatever it takes to peel that old onion you call a brain and get to the bottom of it all. And trust me, there is a bottom to it all. Eventually.

Step 4. Forgive those who made you this way.

If you do it right, you’ll come to a surprising revelation: that your folks or whoever did this to you were also screw-ups, just like you. And because they didn’t know any better, they’re not really to blame for the way you turned out. And neither are you. That’s called empathy. It’s a very good thing to have. 

So now you can finally forgive them, forgive yourself, and quit transferring your anger by acting out on everyone else that matters in your life. And then you can start asking yourself why you don’t just take the bull by the horns and set things right. After all, it’s your life. If you don’t fix it, who will? You’re finally ready to move on … sort of.

Step 5. Really feel the burn.

Yes, I know you’re excited about completing Step 4. It was a big one, that’s for sure. Sadly, realizing all that stuff won’t be enough to change your behavior. Sure, it’s nice to know why you’re the way you are, and it’s even better to know you want to change, that you’re ready to change, but that part takes a while and you will fall back … more than a few times, I’m afraid.

But when that happens, don’t lose hope. Just sit quietly and remind yourself of everything you learned on this journey. Really open yourself up and feel it. If it hurts, you know it’s working. It’s just like pouring iodine or alcohol on an open wound. It burns, but that’s the only way it can heal. This is the same thing.

Step 6. Realize you didn’t screw up when it counted. 

Look back over your life and realize that, even though you shot yourself in the foot so many times you’re walking on your ankles, in some miraculous way, you’re still standing. And that means you didn’t screw up when it counted. It means that, even though you’ve got issues, there must be something inside you worthy of redemption.

And now, you can go forth, have fun, and do great things … or at least not screw up quite so often. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.