Since so many famous people seem to be ruining their careers these days through a lack of good judgment and self-discipline, I thought this would be a good time to update an article I wrote some years back about the importance of avoiding what I like to refer to as “The Big Mistake.”
Relatively recent examples of high-profile people who fell victim to The Big Mistake include, among others, Michael Jackson, former Senator John Edwards, social-media creep Anthony Weiner, baseball great Curt Schilling (who lost his entire fortune with one roll of the dice on a video-game venture), and Ray Rice, ex-Baltimore Ravens running back (who got caught on video decking his fiancée on an elevator).
Then, of course, there’s Horrible Hillary, who let her hatefulness jump out from behind that fake smile on at least two occasions when she referred to half of Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” and when she spoke to an audience of coal miners and assured them that if she were elected, she would see to it that they would lose their jobs.
Which brings me to “Tom,” a popular senior in my son’s high school who sported a near-perfect academic record. He was also a starter on the varsity basketball team and involved in many school activities. He was a shoo-in to be accepted by a number of top colleges.
Then, overnight, Tom became a poster child for the case of EQ being more important than IQ. Notwithstanding his stellar record of making consistently intelligent decisions throughout his young life, his “emotional intelligence” (sometimes referred to as “EQ”) failed him when he most needed it.
Tom was caught selling drugs in school and was immediately expelled. The news stunned the entire school community. I didn’t know the young man personally, but I had heard enough about him to be aware that he was highly respected and popular with students, faculty, and parents alike.
So what on earth was an intelligent, all-American young man like Tom thinking when he brought drugs to school? I can only conjecture that it was a combination of not thinking much at all (at least not about the possible consequences of his actions) mixed with a bit of senior omnipotence.
This sad and shocking incident struck a bell with me, because I have long been fascinated by the ramifications of “The Big Mistake” — a mistake so major that it can destroy such precious assets as reputation, marriage, and earning capacity. In extreme cases, it can even cost a person his life — and often has.
What makes it so tricky is that the form of The Big Mistake can vary widely. Some Big Mistakes are made impulsively, on the spur of the moment, while others are made after considerable reflection. In the latter case, the problem usually is that the person allows his intellect to get trampled by his emotions.
So the question is, how can you improve your chances of avoiding The Big Mistake?
I believe the most important thing is to constantly remind yourself that, as a human being, you are not omnipotent, so there are mistakes that are so bad you cannot reverse them. That being the case, if your gut tells you something is wrong, don’t wave it aside with a cavalier attitude that “it will somehow work out.” Trust your intellect and gut feelings rather than your emotions.
On the other side of the coin, it’s good to know that people usually get a second chance. In the case of my son’s schoolmate Tom, he’s trying to convert The Big Mistake into the most positive learning experience of his life. At his age, and with all that he has going for him, he has a lifetime to overcome his monstrous error in judgment.
If Tom has truly learned from his experience and realizes just how costly one major error in judgment can be, he’s in a position to become something greater than he might have been had he not made The Big Mistake in the first place. And someday he will have the opportunity to reap extra dividends from his experience by telling his children and grandchildren about how a foolish mistake almost destroyed his life.
And so it is with all of us. If you’ve made The Big Mistake and are now suffering as a consequence, you already have the tools to overcome it. I’m not talking about resources, but resourcefulness. Most of all, I’m talking about free will. Making a comeback is pretty much in your hands if you are committed to do it.
Finally, I should also point out that if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid The Big Mistake until now, the last thing in the world you want to do is become overconfident. When you think about what General David Petraeus did to his impeccable lifetime reputation near the end of his career, it underscores the fact that no one is infallible.
Everyday failure is a stepping-stone to success, but The Big Mistake can be a stepping-stone to irreversible disaster. It’s important to be action oriented, but it’s just as important to use common sense and vigilance when it comes to weighing the downside consequences of your decisions.