How I recovered from one of the worst mistakes ever

I misplaced over a million dollars. And, it wasn’t my money.

The day started like any other day. I made my commute from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Midtown. I briskly walked through the large, well-lit lobby adorned with art. When I got to my desk, I turned on my computer and started typing.

I was working at a private bank, helping wealthy clients manage their wealth.

I don’t remember exactly when I got the call. It could have been before lunch. Maybe it was after. But I’ll never forget what was discussed on that call.

The voice on the other side was a client that I knew. He and I had a good report. But, for some reason, this time he sounded colder than usual, agitated, even. He asked about the money that he wanted to deposit in the new account we were supposed to open for him.

It was at that moment I realized something. And, that realization rushed at me like a knockout punch in a UFC match where the other guy didn’t see it coming. Bam! Lights out.

The memory came barreling back to me while on that call.

I remembered that he told me that he was going to mail me a check for a touch over a million dollars (that’s $1,000,000.00+) and deposit it into a new account that I was supposed to help open.

And, in a flash, I realized that I put the check in my filing cabinet on my desk and totally forgot about it, over a month ago. Bam! Lights out.

All I needed to do was send the paperwork to the account opening department, and they would have handled the rest. Easy. But, I failed.

The client was still on the other side of the call waiting for me to respond to his question.

All of this was happening in my mind in a matter of seconds, but it felt like time had slowed down. I wanted to hide, lie, hang up, anything else to get me away from my glaring failure and stupidity.

Two clear choices rose in my mind — lie or come clean.

Neither sounded good to me. Then, I took a breath.

And, before I could change my mind, I uttered the words, “I am so sorry. I totally forgot about this. It’s all my fault. I am really sorry.”

The words tasted terrible in my mouth. But my soul felt good while the words escaped my lips. I knew that I made the right decision, but I was bracing myself for his response.

He sighed and murmured something under his breath. Then, he said, “Do you know how much interest I lost?”

I said something to the effect that I was sure that it wasn’t a small amount of money, and that I was truly sorry.

Then, he said something that shocked me, “Well, we all make mistakes. Please get it done, and we’ll move on.” Just like that, we were moving forward.

I told him that I would make sure it gets done in a day or two and that I would get back to him when it was. After we hung up, I made a few phone calls, called in a favor, and his account opened that day with the money collecting interest.

You might be asking how a person forgets about that much money? What idiot can misplace a check with that many zeros? Trust me. I’ve asked myself the same thing. And, I don’t have a great answer for you.

But, here is a question that I can answer, and it will be good for any ambitious person to hear. What do you do when you make a mistake that seems unforgivable?

It’s simple. You own it. Radically. No excuses. Especially no lies. You just own your failure and call it a day. Then, let the chips fall where they may.

I can’t say that you will walk away scot free, but, in my scenario, I did. Misplacing that much money was not the only horrible mistake I’ve made in my career. And, I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The fact is that so few people know this secret. Sincere apologies work.

I find that most people appreciate the naked truth. We hate it when people lie to us, especially in business.

Lies destroy trust. If you can’t believe someone’s word, then you can’t have a relationship with them. And, without a relationship, there is no business.

If you lie, you may get away with it in the short-term, but it will catch up with you. Lying never wins in the long-run.

What my client said about all of us making mistakes is certainly true. However, from my experience, what doesn’t always happen during those mistakes is someone taking responsibility for them.

You may not have misplaced your client’s million dollars into the abyss of your filing drawer and forgotten about it for over a month. Yours was probably a lesser screw up, like overlooking a colleague’s email, sending a deliverable to a customer that wasn’t great, or failing to keep a deadline.

Regardless, we need to take responsibility for our failures — all of them — no matter how small. And, we should apologize to the person we wronged.

Perhaps you’re not tempted to lie about a mistake. But, maybe you want to make an excuse or blame someone else. You may even have a legitimate reason. But, in those moments, what the wronged person is looking for is someone to take responsibility for the mistake.

Not any ole’ apology will do. It must be genuine. How do you reach a point of apologizing like that?

I simply imagine myself in their skin, and a person failed me the way I did the client. As soon as I do that, I know what I would want to hear. I know the tone in which I would want the words delivered and the emotion I would want to feel from the person who erred.

Then, I deliver the apology just the way I heard it while imagining myself in the other person’s skin.

Empathy solves a lot of problems.

The interesting thing is that errors handled with empathy, often become a catalyst for more responsibility and potential. My career at the bank didn’t collapse. It only grew.

The client didn’t pull his business from me, and he seemed to trust me even more as our relationship progressed.

Mistakes are inevitable. We will never be perfect. But, we can practice empathy and take responsibility for our failures the way we would want it if someone else failed us.

It’s odd to say: But in a world where people try to dodge responsibility, taking the knockout punch often helps us stand out and move up.

Of course, I learned never to misplace someone else’s money. But, more importantly, I learned never to misplace someone’s trust.

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