Screwing Up Could Be Your Best Career Move–If You Do It Right

A screwup doesn’t have to ruin your life, assuming you respond in smart and creative ways. Tips for turning your fumbles into successful turning points.

Screwing Up Could Be Your Best Career Move–If You Do It Right

I’ve admired Southwest Airlines for many years, and I’ve cited them as a company with a clear focus, a vibrant soul, and a culture you can see in all areas of their business and reflected in their business performance. And as a ridiculously frequent business traveler, I made them my preferred domestic airline many years ago. Given this and my professional respect for them, it was a real honor to be invited to speak at one of their recent management conferences. I appreciated their genuine hospitality (I was hugged quite a lot), their pride in and love for their company, and I was impressed by the investment they make in people.


At the same time, I had the pleasure of getting to know the other main speaker at the event, Jay Heinrichs. He’s an author, persuasion consultant, and raconteur, and his energy and presence was intriguing and unique. Southwest curated the content for their team and choose two key subjects (and speakers) that were diametrically opposed in almost every way. I spoke on “Designing Random Acts of Kindness” and Jay spoke on “How to Screw Up.” He believes there’s much to be learned from mistakes, mishaps, and screwing up, and given we live in a world where people and companies are doing all they can to paint a picture of perfection, I was intrigued by Jay’s perspective on “screwing up” as a business discipline.

After talking with Jay, it’s clear he’s uniquely qualified, both as an expert on rhetoric, master in the art of persuasion, and by his own self-admission, as a lifelong bungler. He admits lacking any sense of direction whatsoever, and suffers with an extreme case of permanent absent-mindedness, which according to Jay made for a pretty awkward dating life. He thanks rhetoric for helping him overcome those handicaps and despite himself has been married to a good woman for life.

His first significant encounter with screwing up professionally happened when he accidentally misplaced a volcano. Just out of college Jay was working at a conservation magazine, when Mount St. Helens started smoking. He wrote an article about how this previously inactive volcano in Oregon had suddenly become active. It was one of the first things he ever got published. Jay didn’t realize his error until an envelope with the official Washington State seal arrived on his desk. Inside was a letter from Governor Dixy Lee Ray, asking for her volcano back. Jay had screwed up and put the mountain in the wrong state, a humiliating error for a budding journalist. Frantically coming up with a solution, he walked into his boss’s office a few minutes later. Jay told him what had happened, showed him the letter, and shared his plan. “How about buying a volcano–plastic, bronze, whatever–and presenting it to her?” Jay offered. “No,” the editor in chief said. “A mistake does not earn you a trip to the West Coast. But go ahead and find a volcano. Then just mail it.” So Jay mailed it. And some weeks later, he received a photo of the governor posing with the volcano in one hand and his magazine in the other. They printed that with a correction in the next issue. Jay’s boss was so happy about the outcome that, when St. Helens exploded sometime later, he sent Jay to write a cover story. And that’s when he realized that a screwup doesn’t have to ruin your life. In fact, if you respond in a smart way, you can learn from the mistake and often turn a negative into a positive.


If you ask Jay who is his favorite screwup story, he’d tell you it’s Bill Clinton. He thinks the man made a historic ass of himself. But in the spirit of “How to Screw Up,” Bill Clinton has been a master. Look at how during his challenges, he continually shifted the focus to the future and moved on. Today, Bill Clinton has newfound respect as he puts his exceptional intellect and statesmanship to work helping to solve some of the world’s most significant issues. If you ask Jay who and what inspired his thinking on screwing up, he’d tell you in a New York minute, Aristotle. Jay is an expert on all things surrounding his rhetoric and logic.

What does Aristotle have to do with screwing up?

Aristotle wrote the original book on persuasion: “Rhetoric.” All persuasion books that have been written in the 2,600 years since descend from Aristotle’s ideas. He offers two important tools that apply to recovering from screwups.

First, Aristotle said that the most important tool of persuasion–even more important than logic–is “ethos,” which has to do with getting an audience to like and trust you. The ideal ethos, or projected image of yourself, displays craft (authority with the subject at hand, and an ability to apply that knowledge to specific situations); caring (whether you’re interested only in your audience’s benefit), and cause (whether you stand for something larger than yourself). In a screwup, you need to present a workable plan to show your craft. Emphasize that you’re putting all hands on deck, doing whatever it takes, staying up all night to fix the problem. That’s the caring part. As for cause? Point out that you have high standards and that you plan to live up to them.


Second tool: tense. Aristotle said that there are three types of persuasion, each having to do with a different tense. The past is about crime and punishment, about screwups that happened–where else?–in the past. The present has to do with values, with right and wrong, who’s good and who’s bad. Then there’s the future, where you talk about the expected outcomes of decisions and choices. Want to get someone to make a decision? Focus on the future.

Jay got all that from Aristotle–who, by the way, tutored a young lad named Alexander. Little Alexander took these same tools of persuasion, created a volunteer army, and conquered the known world. He earned himself the title Alexander the Great. If it worked for him, and it’s likely that it’ll work for your screwups.

Apply it to Tim Cook and Bank of America.

Arguably the Apple maps debacle was a significant test in how the post-Jobs Apple would behave in a pinch. From Heinrichs’ perspective, Tim Cook handled the Apple Maps disappointment badly because he apologized. People think they might want an apology from Apple, but that’s not really what they want. The iPhone 5 hit the market and the sheen or invincibility of Apple was washed away by the negative press about the new Apple Maps. Cook apologized for the lousy new application and instantly fired Eric Forstall, the guy in charge of the maps, allegedly because he refused to sign an apology. Apple’s stock took an immediate beating. Had Cook applied Heinrichs rules and emphasized Apple’s high standards, mentioned that the company had temporarily failed to live up to them, and then focused on how the Maps would soon be even cooler than people imagined, the fallout would have been different. Cook should have said that Apple is putting all hands on deck, the most talented people in the world, to get it done. And he should have hinted at what to expect. No apology needed. Shift to the future, emphasize craft, caring, and cause, and watch the results change. If only Cook had been as experienced at screwing up as Jay Heinrichs.


A couple years ago, Bank of America outsourced 100 tech-support jobs to India–and told the fired workers they had to train their replacements in order to get severance checks. The bank got well-deserved terrible publicity for this. How should the managers have handled the screwup? First, they should have recognized their mistake and reported it to the press as quickly as possible, explaining the outsourcing and giving the fired workers their checks immediately. Second, they should have shifted the focus to the future, promising improved efficiency and better service to customers. And while the workers themselves deserved an apology, it should have been done in private. A public apology only makes a company look smaller. Fix the problem and focus on a better future.

Rules for a proper screwup.

As I got to know Jay Heinrichs I couldn’t help but think of how similar his name was to Henry Jay Heimlich, the American physician who invented abdominal thrusts more commonly known as the Heimlich Maneuver. This infamous technique has proven to be a highly effective protocol when dealing with large lumps caught in the throat or abdomen, saving the lives of many a grateful victim. I wonder if Heinrichs’ Rules for a Screw Up will become as helpful, and ultimately as famous for helping companies manage significant mistakes and lumps caught in their system.

Here are the rules:


1. Be first with the news if you can.
You get much better control of the matter if the bad news comes straight from you. Plus, right after delivering the news, you can show that you…

2. Have a plan.
People get over the shock of your screwup pretty quickly if you show you have a way to fix it. But don’t wait to give the plan. You need to present it immediately after giving the news. Why? Because that way you…

3. Shift to the future.
Focus on what happens next. That’s what Clinton did.


4. Don’t apologize.
This is the most controversial advice I give. Apologies come with several problems. First, they focus on the past, on the screwup, reminding people of what you did. Second, apologies rarely satisfy people. They almost always seem inadequate. That’s because apologies are “self-belittling”–they shrink you down to the size of the victim or smaller. People often demand an apology more as vengeance than as any way to improve matters. Instead, you need to be in a position of strength so that you can solve the problem and get past the screwup.

Heinrichs is the author of Thank You for Arguing and Word Hero and you can follow him on

Do you have any tips for making the most of your missteps? Tell us about it in the comments.

–Shawn Parr is the Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision. Follow the conversation at @BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

[Image: Flickr user Thorbjorn Sigberg]


About the author

Shawn Parr is the Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Sony, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, Kashi, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision


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