It’s My Fault

I’m incredibly proud of my wife. She’s an amazing physician, a fantastic mother, and a wonderful wife. I am always trying to live up to the example she sets but honestly have no chance. She’s just better than I am.

One of the concepts she uses to be amazing is taking responsibility for everything. It’s always her fault. No matter what went wrong or why, she tries to understand what she did wrong. What happened, why did it happen, and how can she make sure it doesn’t happen again?

The concept seems aggressive – there are many things that aren’t our fault. Sometimes we have bad luck. Sometimes we failed because of the actions of someone else. Sometimes we made a mistake. There are always excuses available to shrug off the sting of the failure. But my wife doesn’t do that. She owns it.

If she made a mistake, she figures out all of the failure modes. Did she fail because she didn’t know something? She’ll dig in to understand how to learn what she needs immediately so she never makes that mistake again. Did she fail because she was missing a tool, ran into trouble, or didn’t have a resource she needed? She’ll figure out exactly what resources, tools, or setup are necessary and will ensure they’re always available if she needs it in the future. But these are common. We all do something similar when we fail. We look at the situation and try not to make the same mistake again when it’s obviously our fault.

What makes my wife special is that even when she could easily blame someone else for the failure, she doesn’t. Did one of her colleagues fail to book a patient correctly? She thinks it’s her fault that she didn’t communicate the context of those situations correctly, so the other person didn’t know how to act. Did a specialist miss the proper diagnosis for one of her patients? She’ll understand why and the next time she calls the physician personally to ensure the proper context is set. Did her husband fail to take care of a chore around the house? She’ll figure out how I can create the right setup so it doesn’t happen again. Everything she needs done is her fault. If someone else fails, then she thinks about all the ways she can ensure it doesn’t happen again.

That level of ownership is rare. Most people are incredibly happy to pass the ownership of a failure on to another party. It’s much easier to sit back, point out the problem, and ask why the other person isn’t solving it. Not my fault.

Owning failures that you didn’t do personally is hard. Owning the failure takes work. Owning the failure hurts. It hurts because you can’t always stop it and becuase failure happens a lot when you own the failures of the people around you.

But it makes you better. A lot better.

Owning the failures changes the scope of how you can be successful. Thinking about all of the ways your actions can fail – your own actions, the actions of people around you, and the actions of your organization – means you start understanding how your work impacts other people. It forces you to create context for other people. It forces you to think about how the work you do makes life harder or easier on others. It forces you to think about success as much larger than your own inputs and outputs. It makes everything you do better.

An interesting, related part of this idea is that my wife has become incredibly successful not by trying to find success but instead by finding out how to mitigate every way she can fail. By looking at all of the ways her patients might end up with bad outcomes and bad treatment, she is able to get ahead of the issues before they happen. She anticipates the way her office or organization or other doctors might not give the right treatment and adjusts for it. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. But it’s exceptionally effective and resulted in her being one of the best doctors in her region.

As I’ve personally adopted the practice, I’ve found my influence on the people around me and my wider organization has grown significantly. The actions I focus on changed dramatically. It’s my job to create the conditions that allow the people on my team to be successful as often as possible. When someone on my team fails, it’s not their fault. It’s my fault for not helping them find the conditions to be successful. I look at what happened and try to understand the systemic issues I’ve created that led to the failure. What could I do to change improve the odds of a successful outcome in the future?

Often that means using the Five Whys to figure out root causes. If someone on my team failed in a particular meeting – what created the failure? Did I put the wrong person in the meeting or on the project? Did I provide the right context? Have I helped them develop the skills to do what was needed or helped them understand frameworks that would have helped them get there? Have I created the right relationship with the other group to ensure everyone has the right expectations? Or, at the end of all of the questions, is the person on my team in the right place for their skill set and motivations?

If I have the wrong person on my team then how did they get there? How can I understand them well enough to help them find the right work on my team, the right team at my company or the right place where they can excel? If I was the one who hired them then how can I modify my hiring process to ensure I don’t hire the wrong person in the future? Hiring the wrong person isn’t fair to you or the person you hire.

Fundamentally both my wife and I know that not everything is our fault. At a certain point you have to let things go. You did your best and it didn’t work out. The ball bounced the wrong way this time. It happens. But choosing to own the outcome gives you power. It opens your mind to all of the ways you could have influenced – or could influence in the future if you do the work – the outcome you got.

One key: none of what I wrote was “be better next time” or “just try harder” or any other version of grind culture. The answer is rarely “more work” when you fail. It’s almost always finding ways to better understand the system and building in conditional checks that help you avoid known issues.

Own your outcomes. Ask what you could have done differently. And go do it.