In my work I am often preaching the value of a good mistake. Over a thousand years before Rene Descartes came up with his famous philosophical maxim “I think, therefore I am” Saint Augustine said, fallor ergo sum: “I err, therefore I am”. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame nailed it when he said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
So, mistakes are to be learnt from.
However, if you’ve made a mistake that has impacted on others, learning from it is not the whole job. It’s important to apologise.
The problem is, how do you apologise to 400 people who are no longer in the same room?
On Saturday I made one of my worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) mistakes. I’d been invited to talk at The Boring Conference after meeting one of its organisers, William Barrett, at a School of Life event – and proceeding to drink too much wine afterwards. I knew nothing of the conference except the proposed line-up had some names on it I recognised from my brief time as a stand-up, notably Robin Ince (who didn’t appear in the end) and Josie Long. William asked me to come and talk about why I found pessimism boring. I asked if I could talk about why I find cynicism boring instead and the subject was agreed. And that was it.
And so it was that I found myself on a plane the night before thinking I’d better finish writing something on the matter. I let my inner polemicist spurge (replete with prodigious swearage) onto the page – always a useful technique for finding out what you might feel about something – but usually something that needs a judicious edit afterwards.
I was returning from giving a keynote speech at a conference that I’d been really nervous about talking at: an address to some $250billions’ worth of the world’s super-rich about how they might need to reboot some of their assumptions – and start to see their worth by acts of creation rather than ownership. This had gone surprisingly well and so the Boring Conference (a short 5-10 minutes) seemed like it would be something I didn’t need to think about too much – and in doing so I did the event and the audience a disservice. Because I’d been so nervous about talking to the super-rich (I’m talking stupidly rich here) I’d researched the event heavily, attended all of it – and re-wrote my talk at least four times while I was there. I was following one of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my brief flirtation with stand-up – namely that a really great speaker says what they want to say, but in the way the audience wants to hear it.
By contrast I turned up at the Boring Conference having done no research into what it was about and assuming it was something like a Friday night comedy slug-out. As such my sweary rant went down about as well as an appearance of Satan at a five year old’s birthday party. Boring is a nuanced, charming and abstracted event about the non-obvious and what we can learn from paying attention to the things that often pass us by. It was about pausing to think. I’d done exactly the opposite of what was required. I’d told the audience what I wanted to say in exactly the way they didn’t want to hear it. I was shouting about something in grand arm-waving, polemical full flow, when the event was about the whispers of experience we need to learn from. My performance was akin to Ian Paisley interrupting an Eva Cassidy song. It was staggeringly wrong in pace, tone and intent.
As I walked off the stage I began to feel the sticky hot embarrassment of a real cock-up trickle down my neck – and it got worse as the evening went on. Having Twitter on in these moments is instructive. I was ‘the guy that everyone hated’ and ‘a terrible human being’ (this from another of the speakers, Greg Stekelman, whose musings on Tube lines were as perfectly judged for this audience as my rant was ill-judged). I think the tweet ‘Brilliant #Boring2011, apart from Mark Stephenson, who is a cunt,” probably summed up it up for a lot of the audience. (This from @mumoss).
I learnt a whole bunch of stuff from that experience – and I learnt it real quick. But learning, as I said, is half the job.
So please accept my apology. Sorry Boring. All 400 of you. As Greg Stekelman tweeted “Rarely has one man misjudged the mood so badly.”