The Story Economy Blog

Sometimes You Build An Art Deco Masterpiece, and Sometimes You Miss

One of the best examples of Art Deco architecture is right here in my hometown of Cincinnati. Union Terminal (home of the Cincinnati Museum Center), completed in the early 1930s, is a curvaceous deco piece of loveliness. (I might be slightly biased because I got married there.) People come from all over to see it. If you had no idea what Art Deco was and you looked at this building, you would immediately get what it’s about, and want to drink a giant cup of it.

But do you know how it started out? As a Neoclassical building. When they dug ground and started construction, it was designed as a Neoclassical masterpiece, full of linear baroque seriousness. You don’t have to know much about architecture to know that Art Deco and Neoclassical are pretty different: they come from different mindsets, reflect different worldviews, and present different ideas about space. There were economic and cultural reasons that the Union Terminal project team had to switch gears about a third of the way through the construction process. But can you imagine what the series of conversations that led up to the decision must have been like? Can you imagine what it must have been like to walk around with that “oh, crap” feeling during those stressful weeks or months, when the decision was being made? To go to bed every night thinking, “How did we miss like this?”

Of course, a bunch of brilliant people worked magic and transformed it, and now it is what it is. But it started as a miss. A pretty big one.

In the past two weeks, I’ve missed with clients, twice. Two misses.Now, when I say, “miss,” I’m not talking about having to tweak or rework—that goes with my job. I’m also not talking about putting something out there with a point of view that someone doesn’t like. As I’ve written about before, that's a good thing. A bad Amazon review isn’t a miss. I’m also not talking about doing a bad job. When I miss on a writing project, it’s not a question of quality. A miss for me is failing to get it, failing to hear the voice, or failing to understand what will help the client most. It’s giving someone Neoclassical when they really need Art Deco.

If I Can Miss, I Can Grow

This week, I decided to look more closely at these misses, because another (unrelated) client project I’m working on helped me see that the misses often represent the greatest opportunity for growth. (I love when clients teach me things without knowing it.)

So, the first miss stemmed from lots of things out of my control: a crazy time crunch, an unsteady flow of information, and an incomplete picture. But it still didn’t have to be a miss. Magic could have happened (it has before). I could have been the hero. But this time, I wasn’t.

The second miss was because I was unclear about what the client actually needed and gave him something completely unhelpful because I was trying to force something to work. The first one, I couldn’t really fix. Someone else already fixed it. All I could do was make the decision to charge less. They didn’t ask me to charge less, of course. But I had based my original fee on the presumption that I’d be a hero, so it didn’t feel earned. However, I’ve done good work for that company in the past, and I will do more good work for them in the future. I just have to accept that I missed the opportunity to be a hero that time. I really like to be a hero, so this stinks. But I’ll get over it.

The second miss was the one I really needed to learn from, because it forced me to have a very uncomfortable, brutally honest conversation with a client (the kind where your lower back starts sweating). But having that conversation was the only way to find out that Neoclassical wasn’t the right look. It was the only way to understand how things got misaligned. And it was the only way to get a chance to fix it (which I’m working on now). The miss reflected that there was one area of my business that I hadn’t worked out yet, and I had to miss to see it.

Sometimes when you miss, you have to move straight away into “what’s next?” or you make yourself absolutely crazy with regret and self-meanness. Other times, you have to dive right back in and swim around in uncomfortable water for a while. Me? I’m blowing out the last of the bubbles and about to surface again, a little out of breath, but way stronger than before.

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