Five of the Worst Mistakes (and Best Lessons) of My Career!

I am terrible with languages, but, that has not stopped me from studying Thai, French, German and now Italian.  Why?  Probably because I travel a lot and am exposed daily to many different languages and cultures.  Plus, I love challenges and can’t stand wasting time watching TV.

The biggest lesson I have gained from studying languages is one that my Thai teacher continually told me “krang tee nung pit pben khru maakwar nung pit pben kway” (ครั้งที่หนึ่งผิดเป็นครู มากกว่าหนึ่ง ผิดเป็น), roughly translated as “make a mistake once and it can be a teacher; make the same mistake more than once and you are a water buffalo (i.e., stupid)”.  I certainly have and continue to make a lot of mistakes in speaking Thai and other languages (and even English for that matter!), but I do try to embrace the philosophy of learning from mistakes.

I’ve been involved in some manner of HSE education over parts of the last five decades, starting in the late 1970s when I started my university career studying biology.  My education continues to this day where I continually challenge myself to learn about new topics and also to educate others via this blog.  Over that time, I most certainly made (and also forgotten) more mistakes than many of my younger colleagues may realize were even possible! I have searched through my memory banks to highlight a few of the more glaring ones – namely the ones that also served as a teacher to me and may be of value to others. (Names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent!)

Mistake #1 – Graduating with a Ph.D. and thinking that I knew something

After completing my Ph.D. I though I was ready to take on the world in my chosen profession, in my case starting as an environmental consultant.  It took only a few weeks on the job before I realized that while my academic training was useful in many areas, it was ill-suited for working in the real world.  Demanding clients, urgent deadlines, limited budget, limited resources, and the need to integrate and understand business practices and client needs in the context of writing proposals and carrying out projects was my new reality.   I was extremely fortunate in that I had a very good mentor, who remains a good friend to this day.  He took me under his wing and guided me through these challenges.

Over time, and by this I mean several years, I slowly gained these some of the requisite skills to become an effective consultant.  Many years after this,  I started my own company and hired many young staff.  I thus was able to observe this same issue from the other side, namely young engineers and scientists who thought they were ready for working life but really had limited immediate value to my company.  For the type of work we did (HSE consulting), the learning curve was steep – most individuals require 2-3 years of experience before they are able to perform at a reasonable level.  This is common to all graduates from any program, whether a technical degree from a trade school through to a doctoral degree from a leading university.

Recognize that HSE work is a complex and demanding profession and that no matter what your course of study, nothing beats practical experience.  Understand that.  Embrace that.  Gain experience.  And, you will do well.   

Mistake #2 – Wasting too much time on perfection

To this day I enjoy complex technical challenges.  In my early career I spend untold hours developing very sophisticated contaminant transport and risk assessment computer models and modifying and tweaking them in a fruitless search for perfection.  I cannot tell you how many hours I have spend revising reports to no appreciable improvement beyond a few less typos.

Over time, my use of models has been reduced to simple spreadsheets, which in many cases are every bit as effective and much more cost-effective than more complex ones.  I also spend much less time worrying about perfection.  In short, simpler is better.

My suggestions is to embrace the Pareto principle (the 80:20 rule), which can be paraphrased for our use as 20% of your effort will give you 80% of the result/outcome.  The corollary of this of course is that as you seek perfection, you will require infinite amounts of time!  So, find a balance between the resources you have available (in many cases this is your time) and the outcome you are seeking.

Remember that we are hired to solve HSE problems in a timely and responsible manner.  We almost never have to reinvent the wheel in carrying out these responsibilities.   Proven approaches and solutions for almost any conceivable job task is now available through the magic of the internet and/or by asking your more experienced colleagues for assistance.

Mistake #3 – Not understanding that clients (or employers) don’t care about your reports

Another common mistake I made, particularly early in my career, was failing to realize that my consulting clients had no real interest in the report that I would spend untold hours pandering over (see Mistake #2).  I remember this most vividly when my mentor (whom I mentioned earlier) had just returned from some sort of workshop where he attended a presentation that discussed the top issues raised by clients when working with consultants.  Number one on the list, and far above any other concerns, was delays in completing assignments.

Clients hire consultants (and employers hire employees) for specific reasons, namely to provide a needed service over a specified time period.   For many clients, this service is related to specific goals such as gaining operating permits by a specific date and/or ensuring facility operation in compliance with regulatory and/or corporate HSE requirements.  Plans, procedures, reports, training programs, etc. are simply the means to that end, i.e., these are the vehicle for attaining those goals and are not the raison d’etre.

Make sure to understand the reason for your specific assignment and then carry out your work in an appropriate manner to meet the required goal.  Recognize that deadlines are almost certainly more critical than a perfect report (as if this even existed)!  Embrace the 80:20 rule as discussed above.

Mistake #4 – Not taking a chance to get involved in something different

Early in my career I remained very focused on my specific areas of expertise and stayed within my comfort zone.  Over time I was challenged with other work and branched out into many different areas, acquiring experience in a variety of HSE technical areas, business development and corporate management and leadership.   This is a natural progression in many careers, but at first I hesitated  and remained for too long in my comfort zone.  Don’t make that mistake.

In my opinion, one of the most important qualities for a newly minted HSE professional is to gain as broad a background as possible in your profession.  Don’t get pigeon-holed into one box of safety or occupation health or environment – rather gain as much knowledge as you can on all these related fields.  And don’t stop there.  Understanding business and financial issues are important as you progress in your career into management and executive positions.

I firmly believe that going forward the most exciting and best HSE opportunities will be for individuals that have a broad background and are flexible in their career path.  There has never been a better time to embrace learning as there are countless sources of free information on line.  Forget about collecting letters/credentials.  Collect knowledge.  Embrace change.

Mistake #5 – Using too much technical jargon

I started and will finish this blog post writing about language.

Every discipline has their own very distinct language – jargon and acronyms.  While these do help facilitate communication among individuals in the discipline, they are effectively a foreign language for others.   This became quickly apparent to me when I started my career and was working with on a Task Force related to water quality concerns of a river in Canada.  I was the technical “expert” who was contracted to provide technical support to the Task Force members.  To this day I remember the challenges I faced when I was attempting to explain what I considered simple technical details related to nutrient runoff and impacts  on river water quality.  I made a presentation full of terms like TP,  loading, mass balance, diffuse runoff, trophic status, mixing models, etc.  While this may have worked at a scientific conference, it was effectively another language to this audience.  Fortunately, my mentor saved me and explained to them in much simpler terms: cows – poo – fertilizer – polluted water – dead fish.

Be aware of your use of jargon and that most other people do not have this secondary language skill.   Let’s focus on discussing our message in clear English (or whatever language is appropriate at your operation), with minimal use of jargon.  Your employees and clients will be grateful.

Everybody makes mistakes.  Let’s accept that and be willing to learn from them.  And, if they are not too embarrassing, let’s share them so others can perhaps avoid making the same ones.

Thanks for reading.  Keep safe.  Be healthy.  Respect your environment.


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Next Week’s Blog Topic:  What You Need to Know About Asbestos in Asia – Because What You Don’t Know Can Kill

Photo Credits: Garbage image courtesy of N.K. Zsuzsa at Freeimages.com

Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
Managing Director at Redlog Environmental Ltd.
Dr. Randall Shaw is Managing Director of Redlog Environmental Ltd. He has a wide-ranging background in health, safety and environment, with a focus on those HSE issues faced by industry in Asia. Dr. Shaw’s blog posts on HSE issues in Asia are based on his experience from working in more than 30 countries, his pragmatic approach to solving HSE problems, and his desire to pass on this knowledge to others. Ultimately, his goal is to help HSE professionals and companies active in the developing world tackle their HSE issues. You can find him on Twitter (@RedlogHSE) and LinkedIn and he is always keen to discuss HSE issues with others.
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