The Regrets That Burn

Be light. Go light. If you sink in here, you will burn. Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

I spent much of my adult life dancing with regret. The college courses I never took. The sports I didn’t play. The risks I didn’t take. The words said in anger when I should have remained quiet, the ones I failed to speak in support of someone I loved who was being silenced.

I am a perfectionist by training, harder on myself than anyone else ever could or would be. I remembered the moments of brilliance when the speech resonated, the client was thrilled, the work made a difference, but far too often, I obsessed over the gray clouds of “should have” or “if only,” allowing them to obscure those sweet successes.

Early in my career as a consultant, I took on a client that my older, more seasoned self would have run from. A woman who wielded power through gossip and innuendo with a world view that divided neatly in two – those who were with her and those who were against her. Flattered to be let into the inner circle, I pushed aside the little voice inside me questioning what kind of person would reveal the deepest secrets of her colleagues to someone who had no right to know them.

By the time she and her board gathered for the strategy session I’d been hired to facilitate, my relationship with her had unraveled. The interviews I’d conducted in preparation for the meeting had revealed issues with her leadership and concerns about her judgment. I’d shared the comments with her, assuming it would be helpful, or at the very least, that she would want to know. I hadn’t yet figured out that disparagement of others was how she hid her profound insecurity. She attacked whenever someone turned the spotlight on her. I had done my job gathering the feedback and not withholding it, but she viewed my actions as a betrayal. It landed me outside her inner circle, someone she began speaking to with clipped politeness.

Despite our now frosty relationship, I still had high hopes that the group could create achievable goals. I divided the participants into small groups and asked them to brainstorm a list of what they wanted to accomplish in the coming year. It was when they began sharing their ideas that everything went sideways. The first group proposed a series of inactions cloaked in buzzwords like “eye-opening,” “self-enrichment” and “gathering around the flag.” Another group proposed building a library, a project that an organization with a budget ten times larger than theirs would have found daunting to undertake.

I can still see myself standing in front of them, frozen like a deer in the headlights, the feeling of “uh oh” washing over me. I scanned the flip chart sheets frantically, searching for a thread to tie the ideas together. They were there, but I was too shaken to find them. I asked questions, trying to draw out something I could use to construct a few meaningful goals, but in the moment, I couldn’t find a way to make anything substantial out of what they had given me.

The client was furious, legitimately so given my failure to accomplish the goals I’d been hired to achieve although she gave no indication of it at the retreat.

Instead of asking me to rectify the situation or forego payment, she reached out to some of my other clients and bad-mouthed me. Her description of me was so foreign to them, they not only defended me but called me afterwards to relay the details of the conversations. Two prospective clients hired me despite her phone calls, saying her outlandish claims weren’t believable and only made them want to hire me more.

In the end, the client chose to pay me for the project, but to get the check, I had to collect it in person and spend 15 minutes in her office while she belittled me. I’ll never know this for sure, but I think she settled for the lecture when she couldn’t get enough fuel from others to feed her fury.

My shame over this failure blazed for years. I berated myself for getting seduced by the opportunity to learn other people’s secrets, for freezing at the retreat, for staying silent while the client questioned my character and competence. I wondered who else she’d called and what else she’d said. Every time I walked into a large gathering, I braced myself, hoping she wouldn’t be there.

If a close friend had told me this story, I would have reminded her that she was just three years into being a consultant. That she was self-taught, gaining knowledge and experience as she went. That the only way to learn which clients to avoid is to work for them and find out the hard way why no amount of money makes certain experiences worthwhile. That a weak leader can make even the best board ineffective. That any client who rejects self-examination and honest feedback will need someone to blame whenever things go south.

After my son’s brain cancer recurred in 2008, I stepped away from my consulting practice and didn’t return to it until 2016, two years after he died. One day, as I was leaving a meeting with a problematic prospective client, I thought of my former client, only to realize that the memory no longer burned. Perhaps it was the reshaping of my world that came from losing someone I didn’t think I could live without. The way life-threatening illness and death had taught me that I can’t fix or change what I can’t control. Or maybe it was simply the passage of time and the perspective that comes from age and experience. The realization that sometimes the harshest, most searing life lessons are the ones I’ve learned the most from. Or maybe it was both, death and the passing of time coming together to recalibrate regret and illuminate the difference between the failures I would give anything to be able to change and can never make right and mistakes like this one that are a luxury to waste time wallowing over.

As a young consultant, I thought I could evade mistakes by being thorough and preparing well. When the stumbles inevitably happened anyway, I worked hard to put them behind me as quickly as possible, thinking that’s what I was supposed to do. But that’s not how life works. We learn by falling, not by avoiding the hole. By figuring out what went wrong and what part we played. By squarely facing what happened and taking a long, hard, painful look at what we could have done differently, knowing what we know now. We also have to share the story with at least one other person we trust. Otherwise, the shame inside of us can mushroom and convince us that everything that happened was all our fault.

Although I have let the regret go, this experience is with me still. It’s taught me to look past the project and focus on evaluating the client. To walk away from opportunities where I have little chance of being successful, no matter how lucrative they are. To remember that mistakes are part of life and often the most effective teachers. What we learn from them allows us to grow and change and get better at what we do. They remind us that we’re human and that all we can do is our best. And when that’s not enough, we can pick ourselves up and do better next time.

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