To Err is Human
Eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope penned the phrase, “ To err is human, ” a truism that has occupied center stage internationally in recent weeks.
First came the infamous mistake at the Academy Awards, when actor Faye Dunaway—partnered with Warren Beatty—announced that La La Land had won Best Picture. Moments later, the movie’s producer, Jordan Horowitz announced, “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake. ‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.”
The kerfuffle that followed included an apology from Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), the accounting firm that has supervised the counting of ballots for most of the awards’ 88-year history.
Barely had the hubbub over that highly-publicized flub died down than Internet behemoth Amazon acknowledged that an outage on its AWS cloud system—which took a host of sites down for several hours one afternoon—originated with human error.
Namely, an inadvertent keystroke, which started a chain reaction.
The incident didn’t attract the kind of attention that stalked the unfortunate PwC employees who handed Beatty the wrong envelope. But it illustrated the same principles: because humans are flawed, we all make mistakes.
A Fact of Life
I know because I’ve made my share of doozies over the years. I’m glad that many of them occurred outside the glare of widespread public knowledge.
Not always, though. Like the time a couple years ago I did a story on a tight deadline for a newspaper based in Louisville, Kentucky and misspelled a key figure’s name—all 11 times it appeared in the story.
That booboo didn’t originate with failing to have the correct spelling. It was in the editor’s assignment email.
I did the same thing a year or two before that, only realizing my miscue after the story appeared in print. I quickly emailed the interviewee to apologize for misspelling his name. He wrote back to say, “Since my wife just died, my name being spelled wrong is the least of my worries.”
I’m so used to making mistakes now that I routinely tell co-authors and others to not expect perfection from me.
The secret of producing a decent book is not that an author from on high delivers a superb product. Instead, it happens as multiple sets of eyes and perspectives come together to pool their collective wisdom, talents and proofreading abilities.
Acknowledging Our Errors
Often, it’s not what we do when we err that matters, but how we react when evidence of the mistake surfaces that makes the difference.
I saw that earlier this month while working on a story about a boat manufacturing company whose CEO makes no secret of his Christian beliefs.
A leading dealer for the firm told me a story about an incident that occurred soon after he started dealing with the manufacturer. Right after the product arrived on their showroom floor, a huge hole appeared in the bottom of the craft.
The dealer stood aghast, stomach churning and wondering how he would find the resources to fix the problem. He was used to manufacturers citing some obscure “fine print” to explain why they weren’t liable. But this one offered to ship in a new model.
“I thought, ‘Those guys are human,’” said the dealer, who years later is still doing business with the manufacturer. “Ever since, I’ve believed in them. Their word is good. They’re great.”
Forgive and Forget
That manufacturer illustrates the power of the “mea culpa.” Or, as the remainder of Pope’s phrase ends, “To forgive is divine.”
In our highly-contentious, flame-throwing world, we would do well to remember the divinity behind forgiveness.