When I was a kid—all of 5 years old, or something like that—I had this fascination with leaving my mark wherever possible. I’d stick stickers to the walls, to my bookcases, to the surplus of notebooks I always had. As soon as I learned how to scrawl my initials (also, coincidentally, my nickname) I plastered those all over objects as well, much to the chagrin of my loving parents. “MO” was found inside the pages of journals, on bookcases, and, during one memorable incident, etched on the side of a lampshade. Yes, a lampshade. I thought I was so clever; no one would ever suspect that I, Mo, had taken that green crayon and scribbled my initials onto my very own pink and white checkered lampshade. It was clearly a forgery! I was framed! It was my big sister! The back-up plans seemed endless inside my five-year-old mind. But, of course, my mother eventually caught me. And there it was: The energetic scrawlings of a five-year-old on a lampshade; the flowing, artistic expression of an “M” and an “O,” or a mark that defined the very essence of one’s existence, as seen from my youthful perspective. In obvious retrospect, my name was unsurprisingly my betrayer, my giveaway, my incriminating evidence. I had personally and literally signed, sealed, and delievered my mistake into the hands of the authorities. I had made a knowing mistake and it was up to me to pay the price.
In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, I have recently made similar mistakes at the supposedly wiser age of 21. You see, I currently work part-time at one of my university’s libraries. My job is actually quite simple: Sort, stack, and shelve dozens upon dozens of books. I’m still convinced that, given some basic training, a small monkey could do my job, but considering the fact that I was already working another summer job, I needed a part-time gig that paid well and was flexible. So library it was. After about 10 hours of what I deemed unnecessary training (I mean, come on, who can’t sort and stack books?) I was left on my own. For 15 hours a week. With a few simple tasks to accomplish. During each shift—which ranged from three to a torturous seven hours—I found myself sorting and stacking hundreds of books and, with each newly filled cart, I was told to fill out a slip that identified the beginning and ending call numbers of those books and then initial and date the slip. When I went to stack the books, I had to write down the number of books on the cart and, once again, sign and date. Soon my initials—a still overly expressive cursive “M” and “O”—were on dozens of slips. After a few weeks I was tired, certainly, and often found myself distracted, but I always understood what was fundamentally expected of me. And I thought everything was going well.
At least, I thought that until I received an email from my boss asking me to meet with her. Dear Maureen, the email began, If possible I would like to discuss your work performance before your shift tomorrow just to make sure we are on the same page. While I’m happy to discuss details with you tomorrow, I wanted to let you know that your error rate for shelving books was exponentially higher than the rest of the team’s. Please stop by my office so we can figure out what’s going on. (Not a bad email, right? Too bad this is how I read it: Dear Maureen, you are a complete and total failure. A small monkey could do your job. Either get it together or get out. Oh yeah, stop by my office so I can tell you how much you suck. Cheers.) I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ll just mention that there were pictures and graphs involved in our discussion. Thankfully my boss was not angry, nor did she attempt to belittle my existence, but she did want to know what had happened. I imagined that this was how youngsters felt when being called to the principal’s office to receive some sort of punishment. Like detention. Then again, I had never been to the principal’s office or detention, so I wouldn’t know. I reassured my boss that it was just a mistake and that I understood what was expected of me, but I was secretly humiliated. I was certain that all my co-workers knew about my failure (they didn’t) and for days I couldn’t bring myself to look people in the eye. I am an excellent student, a hard-working professional, I was kicking ass at my art gallery job—but when it came to shelving books? Apparently I didn’t have a clue.
So what had happened? I never screw up—okay, that isn’t exactly true—but in this moment I was in the state of denial where I tell myself that failure is never an option; that I, Maureen, do not make mistakes. I am a perfectionist, control freak, overly ambitious woman, surely, but I am not a screw-up (and don’t call me Shirley). Deep down I knew that this was a simple mistake; a mere bump in life’s forthcoming career mishaps. Mistakes happen and, contrary to my own belief, the fact that I misshelved books didn’t signal the end of the world. But I was so disappointed in myself; so ashamed of the fact that I had one simple task to complete and was only able to perform C-level work. “I should probably just quit,” I later told my best friend, Charlotte. “I should just find a job where I don’t completely screw up, you know? Like where my skills are actually valuable.” But after the initial shock of my perceived failure faded away and I completed a much-needed venting session with Charlotte, I did some deep analytical thinking (Translation: I went to a coffee house and drowned my sorrows in an iced mocha). And, in between sips of sugary caffeinated goodness, I finally asked myself the question I had been avoiding since my boss emailed me: Was I actually bad at my job? Or was I simply frustrated with the fact that no one was giving me a gold sticker at the end of the day and shouting about how great of a human I was from the mountaintops? Was my problem a lack of skill or just a lack of patience? Suffice to say, it only took about five minutes to figure out the obvious answer. There are all sorts of reasons for the unacceptable amount of books that I misshelved: I was new to the job, I was working two jobs with fairly extensive hours, I was tired, etc., etc., etc. But, if I am being honest, there were only two reasons behind my poor performance, and their names are Distraction and Impatience.
While working at a library might seem like a relatively easy job, it does demand strong attention to detail and, when you’re sorting and shelving about 200 books per shift, it is easy to make a mistake. Moreover, when I should have been paying attention to call numbers I let my mind wander to clients I had to call the following day for my gallery job. When I gazed at a cart containing 100 books I felt my impatience grow inside me; the feeling of needing to accomplish a task as quickly as possible overwhelmed me, and I haphazardly shelved books in empty spaces without following the guidelines I was given. I was careless and, what’s worse, I was knowingly careless and thought I could get away with it. And, while signing your name on a lampshade might be cute when you’re 5, it becomes unsurprisingly less cute at the age of 21. But I’ve learned from my mistake, I’ve come up with ways to keep myself focused, and my error rate is now virtually non-existent (hey, no one’s perfect). So I’m not going to quit my day job just yet. I am, however, not planning to intial anything less than my best work from here on out including, but not limited to, lampshades and library slips.