You’re Not Perfect – Oh Well!

By Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen

You’ve identified a behavior that’s been getting in your way. You have a clear idea of how you’ll start working on it. You understand that altering an ingrained behavior is difficult, but you have no idea what to expect.

Here’s one thing you really need to look out for as it could definitely set you back. In our experience, self-judgment is the number one thing that could get in your way. It shows up in the form of second-guessing what you’re trying to do, berating yourself because you’re not making progress as quickly as you’d like, and the worst of all, regretting the habit you’re trying to change now because it held you back in the past.

We have a powerful technique that combats self-criticism and is laughably simple. It’s learning to say oh well. As in: Oh well, I messed up. Oh well, I’m not perfect. Oh well, someone misinterpreted what I meant to say.

Oh well is a neat little habit of Marshall’s that Sally picked up while working with him on How Women Rise. It’s not an exercise he does with clients or in workshops. It’s just something he models every day.

Oh well signals self-acceptance, a recognition that you’re only human and that as a human you sometimes make mistakes. It’s the opposite of, OMG, how could I have done that? How could I have said that? What must she/he think? Will I never learn?

Oh well also signals that you’re ready to move on. No wallowing in regret. You just acknowledge that you made a mistake and turn your attention to what you can do next.

Spending time with Marshall, Sally heard it a lot. Oh well, I missed that call I was supposed to be here for. Or Oh well, I forgot that guy’s name. Hearing this was enormously helpful because Sally often has a hard time forgiving herself for the kind of normal human errors that any busy person inevitably makes.

In addition to being hard on herself, Sally tends to hang on to past mistakes for years, for instance thinking about the time she forgot to ask her client about her daughter’s wedding, about the time she gave a talk to people who she thought were in HR, but were actually in communications. Marshall, on the other hand, would let these things go with an Oh well, telling himself to move on.

While working together, Sally barely noticed that oh well was having a subtle influence on her until one morning, when she found herself in the kind of situation that would usually have triggered a tailspin.

She received an email before 7 a.m. from the editor of an article she’d written that had been posted online the previous evening. Five minutes after the posting, the subject of her interview had emailed the editor to let her know that Sally had misidentified his birthplace.

Sally’s first impulse was to slide into self- recrimination: This is a disaster!

But after about two minutes of stewing, the words came into Sally’s mind fully formed: Oh well! Oh well, it was an honest mistake.

She contacted the subject of the article, got a quick response, and sent the editor the correct information. Ten minutes later, the change had been made. Yes, she had made a mistake. But it qualified as a glitch, not a disaster.

It worked so well, that Sally has made oh well her mantra. She even printed out a banner in 40-point font and hung it above her desk. It’s catching on too. She shared it with her husband, Bart. He’s an artist and quite sensitive to people and their reactions, so he’s prone to ruminating about micro-situations he thinks he should have handled better.

Bart loved it. And the next morning, when Sally went into his home office to pick up the phone, she found a big reminder scrawled on the bulletin board above his desk. In giant letters he had written: oh well! Give it a try – you may find it works for you too as you work on changing those behaviors that are holding you back. Let us know how it works – we’d love to hear from you! Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith

We are thrilled to announce that How Women Rise is now available. Order it at Amazon!