Oswald Letter

Don’t let your mistakes define who you are

golfball in bunker with green infrontby Dan Oswald

A week ago, Jordan Spieth lost the Masters golf tournament in stunning fashion. One headline on ESPN’s website read, “Jordan Spieth’s collapse at the Masters the most shocking in golf history.” That’s saying a lot since the “modern” game of golf originated in 15th century Scotland and it made its Olympic debut in 1900, more than 100 years ago. Yet the 22-year-old, according to ESPN Senior Writer Ian O’Connor, experienced the “most shocking” collapse in the history of the game!

I’m not a golfer and certainly don’t know the game well, but I know enough to understand the magnitude of what occurred. The Masters is one of four major golf tournaments each year. Spieth won the tournament last year as a 21-year-old, becoming the second youngest, behind Tiger Woods, to ever win the event.

This year, Spieth had led the tournament, which consists of four rounds of golf, from the very first day. And he was on a roll on Sunday as he birdied four straight holes to finish the first half of his round. With only nine holes to play, he had what many would consider an insurmountable five-stroke lead, until it wasn’t. He gave back two strokes with bogies on the 10th and 11th holes. And then the wheels really fell off.

On the par-3 12th hole, Spieth took seven shots and scored a quadruple bogie, giving back four strokes on a single hole. His lead was gone three holes into the final nine. He never really recovered from those three holes, and he lost the tournament.

This isn’t a new story in sports. We see people make mistakes or come up short in some huge moments. Baseball fans, especially those of the Boston Red Sox, will never forget the Bill Buckner error in the 1986 World Series. It’s been called the most “infamous error” ever in baseball.

Bill Buckner played 22 years in the Major Leagues, primarily for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. He had a lifetime batting average of .289 with 2,715 hits, 174 home runs, 498 doubles, and 1,208 RBIs. During his career, he won one batting title and was named an All Star. An incredibly successful career by any measurement. The fact that he played in the Major Leagues for 22 years, where the typical career lasts just 5.6 years, is a testament to his talent. Yet, by many, he’s remembered for just one play of his long and illustrious career. You can see it here.

In game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Buckner allowed a ground ball to roll through his legs and into right field, and his opponents scored the game’s winning run. Buckner’s team, the Red Sox, also lost game 7 and thus the World Series. Red Sox fans, who had been waiting since 1918 to win a World Series, blamed him for the loss and for denying the franchise a long-overdue championship. Buckner and his family left the Boston area to escape the vitriol.

That’s a lot about two different sports figures to get to my message: Don’t let your mistakes and failures define you.

We all have our moments both personally and professionally. No one is perfect. When you screw up, and you WILL screw up, do not let your mistake define you. Don’t let your error take away from everything else you accomplish.

And if you’re a manager, don’t define the people who work for you by their failures, either. Everyone makes them, but if you look only at the bad and ignore the good, you’ll have problems trusting everyone who works for you. Certainly, if there is a consistent pattern of repeated mistakes, then you likely have a problem employee. But you must expect that people will make mistakes. The question is whether they learn from them and modify their behavior so their future efforts result in better outcomes.

I like to tell people that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. That is, I prefer sins of commission than sins of omission. I want people to push the envelope, try new things, take some risks. In that environment, it’s more likely that mistakes will be made, but the chances for a breakthrough are also greater. Like Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He wasn’t defined by his failures; he was defined by his successes.

Jordan Spieth and Bill Buckner are both elite athletes who have reached the highest level of their respective sports, and they both have made mistakes that will be remembered for generations. Yet they both have the opportunity to either allow themselves to be defined by their mistakes or continue to write their stories.

It was nearly 30 years ago when Buckner allowed that ball to roll between his legs. His life didn’t end that day. He continued to play baseball for a couple more years and has continued to be very successful. Spieth didn’t give up golf after the Masters, and I expect that he will continue to be one of the world’s top golfers. Neither quit or gave up. Neither allowed his mistake to define his career.

People love to define us by our mistakes and failures. Often, people take enjoyment in our struggles. It’s up to us to make sure we don’t give up when we screw up. It’s up to us to put the bad times behind us and move forward. We must show enough resilience to demonstrate to ourselves that we are better than our worst day. It takes courage, but we all must refuse to be defined by our mistakes.