One of the most common warnings I hear given to new attorneys is that your reputation is key. It takes years to build a reputation and a minute to ruin it. These warnings early on serve to guide attorneys to take their interactions seriously, to commit to acting respectfully and professionally, and to avoid making mistakes that will harm their reputations. On one hand, this is good advice. It can steer you in the right direction. On the other hand, this can be taken as a career death sentence if you ever make a mistake. News flash: We all make mistakes.
We all have bad days, respond to hidden fears, and make comments that in retrospect were not what we had intended. So does that mean that a mistake ruins your reputation, and therefore ends your career? Sometimes, yes. Usually, not. The key to maintaining a good reputation and a good career is not avoiding mistakes, but how you respond to your mistakes. Have I mentioned that we all make them? So avoiding them is really not an option.
Taking ownership of your reputation involves taking ownership of your mistakes, not hiding them, learning from them, and coming out stronger than you were beforehand. This is often referred to as resilience. While most of us dream of having a flawless career with a perfect reputation, the truth is:
- You can’t achieve that, because, well, you’re human.
- Even if you were able to achieve perfection, you would impress no one.
So why would achieving perfection impress no one? Because people are impressed by others that they can identify with and those who show them what is possible. If you could actually achieve perfection everyone else would be unable to identify with you. Personally, I identify with people who are flawed, because I am flawed. I am inspired by those who have overcome adversity, because I face adversity. I am encouraged by others who don’t give up after making a mistake, because I have the option to do the same. Perfection does not inspire anyone, because no one has the opportunity to achieve it.
You are human. You make mistakes. Own your mistakes, learn from your mistakes, and show others how you can make your reputation stronger by persevering through mistakes. Make your reputation be about being an example of how to persevere through challenges and being stronger as a result (instead of being about perfection).
Shawn Healy, PhD