The Adult Thing to Do

I strongly believe that you don’t fully become an adult until saying “I was wrong, I made a mistake” becomes easy. This is the moment when you leave behind the childhood narcissism and enter adulthood.

For children, it’s intolerable to lose face by recognizing that they were wrong. This is why an intelligent adult always gives a child an easy, face-saving way out of a mistake or an instance of bad behavior. Children’s sense of self isn’t yet strong enough to withstand the discomfort of being in the wrong. Trying to force them to apologize or recognize their wrongdoing with words is counterproductive because it delays the creation of a mature sense of self that can easily deal with being fallible.

When I first started working here, I messed up and got a senior colleague into a lot of trouble. This colleague was always sweet to me, and I felt like a bastard. There was no way for the colleague to discover who was at fault. She and everybody else blamed another person who is genuinely annoying and disliked by everybody. It wasn’t easy to go to the senior colleague (who was going to be on my tenure committee) and take responsibility. Looking into her face and seeing her disappointment in me was unpleasant. But I did it because it was the right thing to do. I still cringe inwardly when I remember the moment of having to expose myself not as a competent colleague but as somebody who messes up stupidly. But this is how growth happens.

I see it with students, too. It’s very rare to see somebody who is mature enough not to blame everybody else and their uncle for their own mess-ups. But when I see a rare student who manages to do it, I know that this is somebody who will do fine in life.

9 thoughts on “The Adult Thing to Do

  1. “I messed up”

    One of my favorite boss’s attitudes was more or less “it’s human to make mistakes, and when you do I need to know about it before anyone outside this office does”.
    One colleague went to her after a… big one. The colleague said that after they described the mistake our boss looked like she’d just gotten punched in the stomach and was obviously upset but just said “thank you for telling me first” and then they figured out how to deal with it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. “follow that boss to the gates of hell”

        She had a reputation for being very, very tough but she was also very fair and we were all very loyal.
        A neighboring office with a much ‘nicer’ supervisor was always having problems because she wouldn’t make tough decisions and wasn’t a good judge of who was doing their job and who wasn’t….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I hate “nice”. In social situations, “nice” just means everybody is being polite, and nobody is telling me to shut up, when I have been boring everyone to death. But 30% of them will go on to make jokes at my expense, when I’m not around. At work, it means nobody will tell me what I’m doing wrong so that I can correct it. In both those situations, I appreciate clarity far more than niceness.


    1. Today a lab GA scheduled a party at the lab and sent out the invitations without consulting me. I usually like it when they show initiative but it so happens that we are going to have a meeting with the Dean at that very time in the lab. I was about to blow my gasket but then I thought about it and figured out that I can use this to my advantage. It will be hard for the Dean to impart any news about budget cuts when there’s a whole crowd of people celebrating in the same space. I’m proud of myself for not going cuckoo bananas at the GA without thinking it through first. I usually tend to react first and think second, and this is big progress for me.


  2. I’m socially retarded and bad at communicating in media other than writing. I screw up constantly and in ways where I know it’s somehow my fault but I can’t comprehend where or why or how things went wrong. I know I’ve screwed it up, but struggle… not with the admitting it, but with knowing when to admit failure and move on, and when to keep trying.

    This week… has been one of those painful pinch-points. I’ve reached an “admit defeat and move on” juncture, but now I have to put in the hard work of mastering my emotions/frustration about it, so that I can bow out with humility, instead of storming off in a petulant huff. That part is hard. How much do I need to say? What do I need to avoid saying? This is a blind maze with no ball of thread to help me find my way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “you don’t fully become an adult until saying “I was wrong”

    Realizing that many people find it so hard to admit being wrong or admit making mistakes makes me feel like an alien species…. It’s like reading (not sure if it’s true…) that 30-50 people have no internal dialogue…. what some people’s brains aren’t constantly thinking about things, imagining alternative realities etc…. what is that like?


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