I had the oddest moment yesterday, one of those moments that should only happen in films. Someone asked me what was my biggest mistake?
A little context. We were discussing questions that come up in interviews, in particular academic interviews. And specifically, we were thinking about the unexpected questions – or as it turned out, the increasingly common questions, which seem to follow some kind of corporate psychometric logic. One of which was, ‘What would you say was your biggest mistake?’
Obviously, the context of the original question and our conversation implied that it was perhaps a question intended to get the interviewee to reflect on their professional practice. And yet, its parameters are deliberately vague. It’s allowing you to stray into any area of your life if you so wish. If you want to lay your heart bare before the interview committee, here is your chance. If you’ve had a burning desire to confess a haunting error, now is your moment. Nothing is ruled out of bounds by this question. It’s as open as you want it to be.
Of course, we all have a sense of what the ‘right’ answer is. We practiced self-satisfied responses such as ‘My biggest mistake is that I’m always early/ I try too hard/ I’m a perfectionist’ blah blah blah. But amongst friends, we were also curious as to what the genuine answer would be, albeit in terms of our careers.
One of us had an answer immediately, a clear regret that was a missed opportunity. One of us somehow managed to escape quizzing. As for me, I was appalled by my response – not least of all because it was utterly genuine.
Some more context. In the past eight months, I have lost my home, I have moved back in with my parents and most recently, my eleven year relationship seems to have come to an end. In fact, I spent the weekend with the man with whom I’ve had the best times of my life, working through all our possessions, helping him pack what has now become his into a van and watching him drive potentially out of my life. The only way to explain how that leaves you feeling is by telling you that when my sister asked me what I wanted to eat on Sunday night, my response was to cry.
There are just no words for this feeling.
And here we arrive at the filmic moment. I mean, seriously, who gets asked this kind of question two days after the love of their life has gone? Well, I did. And my response, which in fact I didn’t say out loud, was shocking. In my most private thoughts, in my secret self, I had nothing.
I know I have made mistakes, huge ones, painful ones for me and for people I love. But faced with this question, I realised none of them have stayed mistakes.
Mistakes are momentary. They’re mistakes for as long as you don’t respond to them in some way. I won’t say learn, because they’re not all lessons, and learning alone isn’t enough. But if you’ve responded to mistake, then their moment has passed. They’re not mistakes anymore. They become part of who you are. After all, it’s your mistakes as much as your successes that bring you to where you are now, and in fact, your mistakes make you the person you are more than your triumphs, as they help you find the lines you don’t want to cross, the limits of who you want to be.
I have no home. I’m facing life alone for the first time in eleven years. But right now, I can’t say I’ve made a mistake that’s stayed a mistake. So pat, so corporate, so appalling good for an interview answer. But in this moment, which is all we ever have, it’s true.