Back when I practiced law, it had been drummed into my head that every mistake was a potential catastrophe and a source of shame. I was a perfectionist and proud of it. I was also a little bit intense and not particularly healthy. I taught my Associates and Law Clerks to be just like me!
Since I retired, I have come a long way. I have a new set of standards that I try to live by. One of them is, “is the situation better than before I started?” Another is “have I achieved adequate?” My wife says that she likes me better now. And I am healthier than I used to be, although I am still struggling to reverse the damage of a lifetime of practicing law.
Although I do not recommend that professionals lower their standards to my new retirement levels, I do suggest that backing off of the perfectionism nonsense is probably a good idea.
I was reminded of how far I have come this week because my accountant, who I will call Matthew, made a teensy little mistake on the financial statements for my tiny little investment company.
Now I think that Matthew is brilliant and would recommend him to anyone. I have been working with Matt for decades and have referred him to many of my clients. When I pointed out the mistake to him it was not a big deal in my mind, just something minor to be cleaned up. But Matt’s reaction was the same as the reaction that I would have had years ago. He apologized profusely. He immediately looked into how the mistake had occurred and fixed it. Then he apologized again. I hope that he did not lose any sleep over it, but if he is anything like I used to be, he probably did.
Let me repeat. The mistake was a nothing-burger. But it was stressful for Matt.
Unlike was the case with all of the mistakes that I stressed over during my career, this time I was the client and I looked at the situation differently. It was just not a big deal.
That got me thinking. Do clients even care about all of the times that we professionals do not do things perfectly? I don’t think so, as long as it does not cost them any money and we fix the issue expeditiously. So why do people like Matt and the old Murray (meaning Murray when he was quite a bit younger) drive themselves crazy whenever mistakes are made, no matter how inconsequential they are?
The answer is that it is not actually about the clients. It is about our own self-image, ego, and insecurities. If I had realized that long ago, I surely would have gotten some psychological help, because it is a most unpleasant way to live. At the time, I just thought that it came with being a good lawyer.
Of course, I am not saying that nothing matters. I knew lawyers who were not the slightest bit troubled when they got things wrong, including really big things. I am not referring to those idiots. I am talking about all of us normally diligent professionals who torture ourselves about minor mistakes. If you are one of us, fix that. Life is too short.