Growing up I played a lot of sports, both official and unofficial. I remember spending hours with my older brother in the front yard playing catch. We’d make up big league games, pretending we were throwing someone out at home, turning a double play, or catching a fly ball at the fence. It was great fun. What was really cool about the exercise though, was the acknowledged viability of the “do over.” If you felt that something about the scenario was unfair or didn’t work out as planned, either due to your performance or an external influence, you could call a “do over” and make a case for why you should be allowed to try again (obviously, hoping for a better outcome).
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were exercising a rapid learning cycle. Practicing the same plays over and over again, improving each time until it became second nature. Honing our skills in preparation for the official game where do overs were not allowed. In sports and in life, you rarely get a do over, especially one without a penalty. Rarely, but not never.
Three years ago a director at my client resigned and I was asked to fill in until they hired a replacement. I wasn’t very familiar with that domain, but I was told it would only be for a few months. How much damage could I do? Well, it lasted more than a few months, and during that time I learned a lot, mostly through trial and a lot of error. When the position was finally filled, that person lasted only nine months and I was asked to fill in again. Without much thought, I dropped back into the role. The expected “couple of months” lasted almost a year before a replacement was hired.
Well, you guessed it: the position was recently vacated, again. And I got the call, again. Not just a do over, but a do over of a do over. What a rare opportunity!
Now, you might think that given the historical turnover, this is an undesirable position; quite the opposite. It is a very good team that does extremely well in spite of its distributed nature. We do meaningful work that has high exposure with tight deadlines. I’m excited to be back with this team. We’ll see how long this interim position lasts this time.
Can you really ever start over?
Can you really ever start over? T. S. Elliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Even if all else is the same, we are different for the experience of the first time.
Having two daughters less than two years apart, parenting was a series of do overs for Beth and me. We experimented with the oldest, as she crossed most milestones first. Then we got the do over with the younger one. Truth be told, the two girls are so different that it rarely felt like the lessons from the first time helped for the second, but I’m sure they did.
One of the things I did learn — especially with Erika, the youngest — was the deliberate do over. Much like the game of catch with my brother, when things didn’t really go as planned or desired with Erika I was deliberate about calling a do over. One time, I remember going downstairs where she was playing a video game with her friends. I asked her if she could give me some help picking up the basement before some guests arrived. In the snarkiest teenage voice, she told me she was busy and didn’t want to do that. Couldn’t I see she was busy? I didn’t appreciate the lack of collaboration, but even more, I didn’t deserve that tone of voice or that treatment.
I calmly told her I was going to go upstairs for a second and when I came back down we were going to try that interaction again. I called a do over. I was also very clear about what I felt went poorly with the first interaction and my expected outcome for the second time. I deserved better.
I went upstairs and waited just longer than she probably needed to reassess her behavior, then walked down and said, “OK, let’s try that again.” We did and it was a better experience for both of us.
In our everyday life we get caught up in our own stuff. Emotions and personalities trigger responses and behaviors that are not ideal and we often wish we could do it over. But we don’t, mostly because we think we can’t. What’s done is done, it’s too late. In reality, there is no reason we can’t. I know when I am impatient — irritated by rush hour traffic or just having a bad day — I don’t give my best to anyone. If I am aware enough to catch myself, why can’t I call a do over? “I’m sorry, can we start over? That wasn’t the way I wanted that to come out and I’d appreciate it if you would afford me the luxury of a do over. Could we start back at the beginning? I think I can do better.”
Getting a do over like this has some large potential upsides. First it shows a level of humility and vulnerability that goes a long way in developing or maintaining trust-based relationships. People may tolerate your behavior because of your title or their history with you, but given the opportunity I believe they prefer not to. Besides, who really wants to operate from a position of merely being tolerated?
Second, a do over gives you a chance to stop and be intentional about what you really want and whether your actions and words are moving you in that direction. By calling a do over on yourself, you are singling out your own behavior and calling deliberate attention to the second version of yourself. You know people are watching and paying attention because you just asked them to. It increases total engagement.
Third, recognizing that you behaved other than the way you wanted to means you know how you did want to behave. Armed with that knowledge, you can take a different perspective. Think about the outcome and what it feels like to behave as you would want. Being conscious of your preferred performance may inspire you to behave that way and save the next do over.
Finally, rather than wasting time after the meeting fretting about how you behaved or what people thought about you, calling a do over gives you an immediate chance to correct in real time. This saves you all that potential angst wondering if people thought you behaved poorly. Admit it, start over, and make the most of the rest of the interaction.
When my brother and I played ball, we knew to use our do overs sparingly. It wasn’t fair to just put forth a mediocre effort, hope for the best, and then call a do over if it didn’t work out. Under those circumstances it was fair for the other to call foul (puns intended). In life, there will be times when you have to accept the undesirable results, learn from them and play on. So, no matter how it went the last time, don’t waste the next opportunity. But, if you get the chance, call a do over.