I just had a wonderful stroke of luck that bailed me out of a big ole boneheaded error I made yesterday. It is the kind of error that I have a certain notoriety for — not all the time, just once in a while, when I am on overload and stop reading email all the way through, forget to review checklists, and otherwise put myself in a dangerous position with decision-making. The stroke of luck was due to someone who had a solid sixth sense that something was not quite right.
This error reminded me of my most illustrious “did not read the memo” gaffe, which I share here for the first time ever.
At my last university, I was invited to participate in a university president’s inauguration ceremony and quickly scanned the invitational email. Wear regalia and process to a stage? Sounds easy enough! Ok, on to the next problem!
But after we were seated (on a large, brightly-lit stage facing audience of oh, several hundred), I gradually realized that everyone else on stage was getting up one by one, and giving a speech. My hands started trembling. I had no speech. I looked out into the audience. There were the other library people, gazing calmly at their fearless leader. I mean, if anyone likes to give a speech and can knock one out of the park, it would be me, right? The woman who has presented seventy-bazillion times?
My mouth turned to ancient parchment and I could feel cold perspiration wending its way down my torso. I suspect if you had been able to see my eyes, they would have been two fully-dilated orbs in my panicked face. I could feel the hair on my head whitening.
Out of about two dozen people on stage, I could see that I was scheduled to go next to last. The speakers walked to the podium one by one. What to do, what to do?
Breathe. What tools did I have at hand? Breathe. I have a small paper program for the inauguration. Breathe. What is going on with the speeches? Breathe. Observation: the speeches are mostly too long. Breathe. Try to still my hands. Notice that the audience is getting restless. Breathe. Smile out at the audience. Breathe.
It was my turn–a turn that for once in my life came far too quickly. I walked to the podium, looked out at the audience, and smiled. I slowly unfolded the small program and frowned at it for a moment as if it were my speaking notes while I mentally rehearsed the two or three points I would make. I began with a joke about not wanting to speak too long. Other words, now forgotten, ensued, as I winged it onstage. I could hear laughter and appreciative rustling, though I was so anxious my vision was too blurred to see past the lectern for the next two or three minutes. I summed up my speech by noting that the university, like our library, was small and mighty, a joke which if you know me has a visual cue as well.
As soon as I was outside, I owned up that mistake to my team. Not to brag about getting through a disastrous mistake unscathed (well, maybe a little), but also to fully claim my error. This situation was awful and funny and educational, all at once. It was about my strengths, but also about my weaknesses. I believe I slept 14 hours that night. It became part of our library lore.
There were many clues that I was in the vulnerability zone for error yesterday. Distraction, overflowing email, too many simultaneous “channels”; I had even remarked the previous week that I was trying hard, but sometimes not succeeding, at not responding to email messages while I was in a face-to-face meeting. The people I was interacting with were equally busy and besides, it wasn’t their job to see that the conditions for making major errors had become highly favorable. That was my job, as the senior mechanic in charge of this project, and I wasn’t doing it. Clues abounded, but as my overload factor increased, I missed them — a classic case of being unaware that I was unaware. And I ignored the checklist sitting in front of me just waiting to help me, if only I would let it do so.
I had excellent training in the Air Force about the value of using checklists, and I have touted their use in libraries. People often need convincing that checklists work and that checklists are not an indication that they are somehow dumb or stupid for not being able to extemporize major tasks, even though there is a preponderance of evidence underscoring their utility. In aircraft maintenance, failure to follow checklists could, and sometimes did, cost lives; even when lives were not at stake, failure to follow checklists sometimes led to expensive errors. And yes, for yesterday’s mistake, there was a perfectly reasonable checklist, but I didn’t review it. Just as there were email messages I didn’t read all the way through, and just as I didn’t catch that I wasn’t shifting my attention to where it needed to be.
As I reflected today about awareness, checklists, and stumbling toward errors, I looked outward and thought, this is what this presidential campaign feels like to me. There are cues and signs swirling around us, and an abundance of complementary cautionary tales spanning the entire history of human civilization. Anger, vulgarity, and veiled hints at violence abound. The standards for public discourse have declined to the point where children are admonished not to listen to possible future leaders. We worry, with half a mind, that what looked like a lame but forgettable joke a few months back is simultaneously surfacing and fomenting an ugliness that has been burbling under the body politic for some time now. We watch people dragged away and sucker-punched at rallies as they clumsily try to be an early-warning system for what they fear lies ahead. We have all learned what “dog-whistle” means–and yet as the coded words and actions fly around us, we still do not understand why this is happening. We sit on this stage, programs wadded in our sweating hands, watching and watched by the restive audience until our vision blurs; and we do not have a checklist, but we do have our sixth sense.
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