On being ... ironic

By Ingrid Sapona

I imagine everyone has days that make them question whether they’re in over their heads, or fundamentally unqualified for their work. An incident this week certainly left me wondering if I’ve been in denial all these years and had me thinking I should find another career.

It comes as no surprise to my readers that I’m not a terrific speller or proofreader. I do my best on both accounts, though I fear it doesn’t always look that way. One of the most vivid recollections I have from when I worked full-time as an intern on a daily newspaper was a spelling mistake I made describing someone’s “roll” on City Council. The fact the copy editor didn’t catch my mistake didn’t make me feel better when the Managing Editor handed me a copy of the printed news page with the word circled in red and a scribbled note about dinner rolls. Ouch!

Since then there have been other inauspicious occasions when my poor spelling and proofreading has caused me embarrassment and frustration. (I do my best to manage client expectations around it and when I provide a quote for an editing assignment, for example, I explicitly state that proofreading is not part of the services I offer.) This week, however, my misspelling of a name in a proposal cost me the project – and caused me to seriously reconsider my line of work.

I had a meeting with a law firm to discuss my putting on a one-hour seminar for their summer students on e-mail best practices – a topic I’ve written about before. We had a very good meeting and at the end of it we discussed their budget and even pencilled in the date and time for the session. Before I left, they asked me to submit a written proposal for their boss, Eric (not the person’s real name).

I put a fair bit of time into the proposal and included a detailed outline of the session. I figured it was time well spent because the outline would serve as the backbone for the PowerPoint. Naturally, before sending it I ran spell check, grammar check, and read it aloud in hopes of catching any errors.

Well, the next day I got an e-mail from them thanking me for the proposal, but saying they decided to use internal resources for the session. My initial reaction was a combination of disappointment and anger. Most of my anger was directed at myself for having provided them with such a thorough outline and for not picking up on cues that might have alerted me to the possibility they might have been using me.

Unable to figure out what went wrong – and figuring I had nothing to lose – I phoned to ask for feedback. After admitting that I was disappointed, I explained that any feedback would be helpful for future proposals. Their response stunned and mortified me. They said, “To be honest, you spelled [Eric’s] name wrong in two places and we felt that was unacceptable, given the nature of the seminar and all.”

Keeping my tears (temporarily) at bay, I calmly thanked them, said I understood, and reassured them that I appreciated their candor. Afterward, figuring I must have typed Eric once with a “c” and once with a “k”, I reviewed the proposal. When I could only find his name in one place, I was confused.

Eventually I found my mistakes: he has a hyphenated last name and I had inserted an extra letter in one name and left out a letter in the second name. The thing is, because it’s an unusual name, when I was preparing the proposal I checked the spelling on the firm’s web site. (I imagine they think I was simply too lazy to look it up – but that’s not the case.) Regardless, I still got it wrong – and it was a deal breaker – and I was devastated.

How can I hope to make a living as a writer or communications consultant if I can’t spell or can’t catch typos? Have I simply managed to bluff my way all these years? Maybe I’ve simply been on a lucky streak that has ended with Eric calling my bluff?

When I started this column, I chose the title because it had a dual meaning. The irony I figured readers would pick up on is that someone whose Achilles’ heel is poor spelling and proofreading would choose a career as a writer. The second irony – the one that I thought I’d be revealing – had to do with the fact that this May marks the 15th anniversary of my business but rather than celebrate, lately all I’ve thought about is that maybe I should have the courage to admit I’m not qualified for this line of work and that I should quit. I’m pleased to say, however, that the title isn’t about either of those things.

For you see, for the past couple days I tried very hard not to write about this incident because I was so embarrassed by it. But, I’ve been so consumed by my grief and frustration over it, I was unable to focus on anything else – much less think of another topic for a column. So, embarrassed or not, my choice was: write about it or skip this week’s column.

But, ironically, by writing about it and facing my embarrassment and fear, I’ve regained some of the perspective I had lost about my qualifications for what I do for a living. Misspelling Eric’s name was clearly embarrassing and the result was unfortunate. But, neither the fact of the misspelling, nor the loss of the work, means I’m fundamentally unqualified to teach about the e-mail best practices or to write for a living. After all, though I know luck has played an important role in my ability to make a living – it wasn’t all luck. Some of my work success must be attributable to substance triumphing over form.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... the perfect bromide

By Ingrid Sapona

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, clichés don’t get a lot of respect. For proof of this, you need look no further than the first definition listed for cliché on Merriam-Webster.com: a trite phrase or expression. Trite? Hardly…

I love clichés. Personally, I couldn’t get through a day -- sometimes even an hour -- without them. The type of day I’m having and my mood can pretty much be summed up by the patchwork of clichés that bubble up into my consciousness. I use them to motivate myself, to chide myself, and to console myself. For me, they’re a form of therapy.

To be honest, I kind of figured everyone uses them the way I do. But, when I recently canvassed some friends about what sayings come into their heads every day, they looked at me like I was -- well, nuts. Nuts? Hardly…

So, at the risk of revealing my deepest insecurities, I hereby offer a glimpse into how clichés help me get through a normal day. Of course, because cliché therapy springs from the subconscious, the account that follows is largely stream-of-consciousness -- I leave it to you to figure out whether, at any given moment, a particular cliché serves to motivate, chide or console me.

Given that my internal clock gets me up between 5 and 6 every morning (regardless of what time I went to bed), I can’t help believe my body has taken to heart the notion that the early bird gets the worm. Some mornings I fantasize that instead of thinking about birds and worms, my day will start with the cliché about waking up and smelling the coffee, as that would mean that someone else was around to serve me a cup. I know -- that’s not what most people mean when they invoke that cliché -- but such is the beauty of clichés: they’re very versatile!

Knowing the buck stops here, soon after breakfast I’m at my desk, either doing work or, as I’ve spent more time lately, trying to find work -- after all, hope springs eternal. Oh how I hate cold calls. Now, now… hate is a big word. Besides, it’s just a numbers game. It’s not rocket science. You gotta do what you gotta do. Gotta keep working to fill the pipeline. Oh how I’d rather be sailing. Better keep my nose to the grindstone… Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

What about that client that mentioned a follow-on project? Maybe I’ll phone her… hope springs eternal. Hmm, that doesn’t sound too interesting… Well, beggars can’t be choosers. Did they say when they expect to make a decision about going ahead? Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. Once bitten, twice shy.

Yikes, I hope I’m not in over my head. Just do it. Sink or swim… Rome wasn’t built in a day. Good thing you’re smarter than your average bear. All you can do is the best you can do…

Damn, my proposal was rejected. Talk about taking the wind out of my sails. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Hope springs eternal? Yeah, right.

Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a regular job? When you work for yourself, you ARE chief cook and bottle washer. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The grass is always greener on the other side.

What happens if both projects are due at the same time? Cross that bridge when you come to it. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

My opinion? Ok, but you have to take it with a grain of salt. That might open a can of worms. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The best laid plans… Be careful, seems she has a bee in her bonnet. Better nip that in the bud. Yeah, well, if ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas!

You just checked e-mail a minute ago -- a watched pot never boils. The ball’s in their court. Out of sight, out of mind. Nothing like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Bite the bullet.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. What’s the worst that can happen? You never know until you try. What have you got to lose? That and 50¢ will get you a cup of coffee.

I need that like I need a hole in the head. A penny saved is a penny earned. A fool and her money are soon parted. You gotta spend money to make money. Ok, maybe I was being penny wise, pound foolish. Live and learn…

And finally, as I sign off the computer and my inner Scarlet sighs that tomorrow’s another day, I am grateful that -- so far at least -- I’ve found that hope springs eternal and that all’s well that ends well…

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona