Feeling Gun Shy After a Mistake

It’s inevitable in our profession: mistakes will be made. Sometimes, however, it’s exceedingly hard to pick yourself up, dust yourself up, and start all over again after a particularly rattling mistake. Misread a rule? You may find yourself pouring over all the rulebooks before submitting a simple filing you’ve completed multiple times. Cited an overturned case? Perhaps you’ll cite check your next brief three or four times. The trick is to prevent these lessons learned from becoming obsessions or hampering your ability to function at work.  Easier said than done, no?

Analyze the mistake

After a mistake, my first step (after correcting it in the moment) is to figure out why it happened.  Was I rushing? Did I forget to check a rule book? Read the rule too quickly? Not even think to look for a rule on this particular topic? Depending upon my conclusions, I remind myself that the solution should fit the problem. If you simply forgot to look up the font size for a brief, there is no need to pour over the rules obsessively before a next filing. Instead, creating a handy dandy short list of filing rules may do the trick. If the problem was not realizing that a particular rule existed, it might be worth perusing the rule book’s table of contents to gain familiarity with the existing rules. No need to turn an error into an obsession. As someone with more than a few OCD tendencies, I have a rule: I am not permitted to give in to these tendencies lest I end up like Captain Ahab.

Pretend to have confidence

Sometimes it feels like, even when I make a small mistake, it is hard to get out of a rut and feel confident again. I always think of the figure skaters at the Olympics. Once someone misses that first double axel, my palms get sweaty and I just hope they can keep it together. But all too often, the skater is rattled and just keeps falling.

How do you get out of ice skater rut? Several studies have shown that acting like you’re feeling an emotion can actually lead you to feel that emotion. Indeed, just saying the vowel sound “e” (which stretches your mouth into a smile) has been shown to make people feel better. (Conversely, avoid the long “u,” which can make people feel down.) So act confident after a misstep and assure yourself that you’re not in denial, it’s therapy.

Don’t dwell

Sure we want to think about our mistakes so that we make sure they don’t happen again, but I want to move on. In high school if I received a bad grade or even said something I later wished that I hadn’t, I would find myself singing Cher’s “If I could turn back time,” and replaying the moment in my head over and over with new director’s cut editions. This sort of behavior pretty much destroyed any ability to move on. Similarly, it’s really hard to pretend to have confidence if you’re replaying your past moves over and over in the movie in your mind. For me, being busy and exercising helps keep my mind focused on the next event instead of a past one. 

We all want to learn from past experiences, but I don’t want past mistakes dictating how I act in the future. In an ideal world, one would learn from past errors and synthesize that information into a larger database of experiences. The next case’s decisions should be governed by that entire database instead of just fear of a past event. It’s a goal at least.


(image: Portrait of a Robot Girl from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Kari Swalinkavich says:

    Sybil, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your posts. As a solo, it is hard to get the advice you sometimes need but don’t know how to get. Your posts provide a bit of mentorship that most of us are lacking. Thank you so much!

  2. Avatar John C says:

    Great message Sybil. Mistakes happen – we don’t take an oath of perfection when we are sworn in. The key is to learn from the mistakes and understand why they happened, and put whatever structure in place that is necessary to guard against it happening again.

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