Oh So Human

We live the verbs in our life to ultimately become the best nouns we can be. In becoming a credit union leader, making mistakes has been a big part of the journey.  

“Everyone makes mistakes.”
“You aren’t innovating if you don’t have some failure.”
“You’ll be a better leader having had some errors to learn from.”

Have you ever been told one of these things? As a perfectionist, these statements ring true for me, but, I have never been a fan of failing.

Just this week I got a taste of just how human I am. I bought a new dress. I took it to my closet right after it arrived in the mail because I’m working really hard to prevent clutter from piling up in our home. However, I didn’t have any scissors upstairs to remove the tags. Thus, I quickly hung it in my closet with the tags remaining.

On Wednesday morning, I was excited to wear the dress for the first time. When I put it on, I remembered that I had yet to remove the tags. As I was doing my hair, I pulled the tags out of the dress so it was “easy to remember” to cut off the tags when I got downstairs before I left the house. Fast forward to 4:30 PM. One of my colleagues stops by my office and says, “Tansley, is that a new dress? I like it. Where did you get it?” I smiled and said, “It is new. In fact, the brand is…” I reached into the back of the dress to show her the tag and my heart fell. I felt the tags sticking out of the back of the dress. I had walked around all day long with fairly large tags popping out of the back of my dress. My colleague giggled and assured me she hadn’t seen it until now. No matter how hard we try, perfection is never within reach. It’s an illusion.

Of course, this was not my first mistake, nor the most important. When I first graduated from college, I was looking for work in either marketing or social work. Honestly, I was less driven by any particular kind of job than I was the desire to get out of Michigan. I wanted to move far away from home. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to experience something new. I applied for jobs all across the country. I sent hundreds of cover letters and job applications.

I received an invitation for an interview in Maine for a position as a social worker. Because of the rural nature of the state, the population is very spread out. Thus, in order to provide social services, the organization I interviewed with paired a bachelor’s level individual with a master’s level individual and the two went out across the state to provide social services. I wanted to make a difference for people. I thought I could help. I quickly received an offer. I was thrilled.

My dad went out to Bangor, Maine with me. We found a small apartment in the basement of a large old home. My dad and his friend drove all of my things out and my mom, my grandma, and my cousin drove out with me. As I headed out to start my first day, I was showing signs of being quite homesick. I was terribly nervous.

My first day confirmed I had reason to be concerned. For training, two master’s level professionals who had worked there a long time took me out to shadow them and learn the role. We met just outside of Bangor for a nearly two-hour drive to our first visit. The entire way in the car they told me, “This is the worst job you’ll ever have. If there is anything you can do to get out of it you should. You’ll never survive this.” My stomach was in knots. I couldn't believe what an enormous error I’d made.

The visit with the family we were there to help confirmed the error. There were deep challenges well beyond the scope of anything I could ever imagine. After a couple of hours, the three of us got back in the car and headed to the next stop. The entire way there the two veteran social workers shared with me the horrors of the job and told me yet again like a record that was stuck on repeat, “This is the worst job you’ll ever have. If there is anything you can do to get out of it you should. Quit now.”

The next stop was equally daunting. The challenges facing the family we were there to help were significant. My mind was spinning and vacillating between thinking about how I could best help and how I was going to tell my parents that I had just made a very big mistake. The ride back to Bangor sounded just like the rest of the time in the car that day. My new colleagues sharing their very persistent perspective, “This is the worst job you’ll ever have. If there is anything you can do to get out of it you should. Quit now.”

When I got back to the apartment, my mom, grandma and cousin had spent the day unpacking my boxes and making the apartment feel like home. They had worked to settle me in so that when they left I would not feel homesick. I burst through the door and said, “Pack it up. I’m not staying.” My mom turned pale. She said, “Tansley, you have to stick with this. You made a commitment.” I was not going to be persuaded. In the midst of my sobs she asked me to call my dad who had already driven home after having driven all my possessions halfway across the country. He was furious. He said, “Don’t even think about coming home. You started something. You finish it.”

The next day, my mom, my grandma, my cousin and I started the drive back to Michigan. It was somber. My mom was frustrated. She knew my dad was angry. I was sure I had ruined my life. I thought I might never find a job. I imagined people in my hometown talking about what a failure I was.

The summer was hard. My dad’s anger took time to subside. I continued to send out piles of applications. When I finally got an interview for a Marketing Specialist role at a credit union in the northern suburbs of Michigan, I had hope. When I got the job offer I was over the moon. I tried to forget about my “Maine mishap.” I never talked about it. I hoped that people would forget. I thought if anyone ever found out at work that my life would be over.

Time went on. Several years later I was at dinner with the CEO of the credit union. He asked me to tell him about a time when I really messed up. I shared the Maine story. He laughed. He showed compassion. Several months later, I applied for a promotion. When he gave me the new job he shared with me that one of the reasons he took a chance on me in the new role was the “Maine mishap.” He said, “I knew that in really tough times, even with strongly negative consequences, you were the kind of person who would walk away if it wasn’t the right thing. You’ll also take risks. Both are important.” Suddenly this awful mistake had helped my career. Occasionally I began to tell the story to others. It wasn’t something I had to be ashamed of anymore. It was one of my many mistakes in life that helped me to learn and grow.

As we make mistakes and actively live screwing up, we become more human. We gain experience. We develop empathy. We become a better sounding board for others that are going through hard times. We shape the path that is more closely tied to our long-term direction. We become better leaders.

Living this Maine mishap was not fun in the moment. Sometimes when I tell the story people ask me, “if this happened today, do you think you would stay?” The answer is I’m not sure. I feel very lucky that that next job led me to credit unions and to a world where I do feel like the organizations I’m a part of are making a difference in people’s lives and the people I’ve had the chance to work with not only welcome new team members to stay, but invite them to create a life within this movement.

My human frailty humbles me daily. From the small moment of forgetting to cut tags, to the larger foibles, in the active low moments of living the verb of screwing up, I ultimately became the noun of a credit union leader. The mistakes in my life have been painful, but they have helped me become the many nouns I am today.  

What mistakes have helped you to become the nouns you are?


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