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He Said/Then She Said: Is Failure a Black Hole?


An advice blogumn by Andy Allen and Kalimba Bennett

Dear He Said/Then She Said,

I am a freelance audio engineer, constantly involved in one or two day jobs on short notice and building a reputation. I recently worked a job that was a disaster. Turns out I made a techincal blunder that rendered all the audio unusable. I offered to pay back my fee but I can’t seem to reimburse my confidence. How do I recover from such a disaster and not sit around dreading my next job?


Doomed to Fail

HE said:

Doomed to Fail,

I’m so sorry that happened to you.  It sounds like it was a mildly traumatic experience.  I am a musician and I have recorded a lot of my own music myself as well as with other people, so I think I might have a pretty good understanding of how you feel and what the other party might be thinking.

It sounds like you know what went wrong.  If you don’t, then pinpointing your error would be the absolute first step here.  After you’ve identified your mistake, you should run some drills working with that mistake until that particular part of your job becomes second nature to you.  If you don’t feel like you need to run drills and work with it, then just make a dramatic mental note to yourself so that it will be next to impossible for you to ever repeat that mistake again.

The most important thing is to regain your confidence.  Confidence will allow you relax and perceive all the different facets of future jobs clearly.  It will allow you to work with steady hands and a steady mind that can vividly recongnize the big picture as well as the minute details of any job.

If I laid down a lot of guitar work or a lot of vocal work that I was really happy with and the engineer couldn’t come up with any of it at the end of the day, my confidence in his or her capacity to do their job would be profoundly rattled.  I would hire a new engineer.  I would be too concerned about other mistakes down the line.

This is an opportunity to reassess your approach to your work.   Refocus and sharpen your skills.  If it’s not your skills that need sharpened, then take a look at your concentration.

I would send a copy of a successful future job to the client in question here.   I would attach a letter, stating both your regret concerning their dissatisfaction with your performance as well as your desire to have his or her confidence renewed in your work.  I would write, “Even if you never hire me again, it is important to me for you to know that I am capable of great work.  I deeply regret the mistake I made with your project.  It was an isolated incident.”

Good luck getting yourself dusted off and feeling shiny and clear=headed again.  The first step toward that will be understanding with great clarity exactly what tripped you up on the last job.



Then SHE said:

My sweet, sweet, Doomed to Fail,

There’s good news and there’s bad news.  Let’s start with the bad:

1.  It sounds (no pun intended) like you made a pretty big mistake.


2.  Well,  lets see.  Hmmm…I got nothin’!

Now, here’s the good news:

1.  You’re human!   By screwing up you proved to to yourself and the rest of the world that we humans are not perfect.  Whew!  What a relief.

2.  You are a stand up person – you offered to reimburse the project, which proves that you’re a good egg.  Now pat yourself on the back for having such integrity and doing all that you could do (in my opinion) to remedy the situation.

3.  You work freelance! You don’t have to go to work everyday and suffer the cringeworthy experience of being “The engineer who lost all the sound on the Smithson project.”  You can pack up your lessons and move on (and you will) to your next adventure.

4.  You have become a better sound engineer!  In the words of Henry Ford “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  Perhaps you’re more meticulous now or maybe you learned a new skill in trying to recover the sound.  The point is, you are now better equipped for the next job – and maybe it’s a huge one – that comes your way because of this experience.

5.  You’ve got a great story to share with someone in your position someday.  We all fail.  In the future someone you love will fail miserably.  They will be hurting and feeling paralyzed just like you do now.  You’ll be a more compassionate listener and because you “failed,” you’ll be able to relay this story, helping them feel less isolated in their experience.

The bottom line, for me, is that it’s all perspective.  Yes, give yourself a moment to feel mortified and freaked out.  That’s totally normal.  But don’t get stuck there. Think about the list I gave you of possible “positives”, remember that you’ve done this job before, that you’ve done it well, and focus on what you love about it so you can keep moving forward!