A Professional’s Worst Nightmare

A Professional’s Worst Nightmare

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. As a graduate trainee, you hardly do much in the beginning. It goes on for at least the first half of the year. For some people, it goes on for years, and it’s very frustrating. I have friends who text me telling me how frustrated they are because they aren’t doing much and there is so much they can to do.  I had the same experience last year, so I now have an autopilot answer to such rants: “enjoy it while it last.”

Last year started off very slow for me and then boom! I got a project to do on my own. The best millennial way to describe it would be “Yoh, that escalated fast” or “Wow, that went from a 0 to a 100 really quick.”

Imagine helping your mom bake a cake, and all you do is pass her the eggs, measure the flour or mix the ingredients. Then one day she tells you to bake a cake. You weren’t involved in the baking process, and those bits and bits you did weren’t necessarily enough to help you bake a cake on your own, but now you have to bake the cake.

That was how I felt when I got my first project in the last four months of the year. I didn’t know what to touch or where to start and end. It was a mess. Everything was a mess, and I made so many mistakes, costly and terrible mistakes which are unacceptable for a Quantity Surveyor. I was always under hot water at work. I might as well have adopted the name “Mistaky.”

One day I added the cherry on top of my many mistakes. That was it; I was going to be skinned alive. I honestly can’t describe how I felt that day. It felt as if mount Kilimanjaro had just collapsed on me. I felt like crap. I had to get out of my feelings quickly though because I needed to come up with a solution.

I emailed a few people, and the email signature of one of the respondents read as “We are human, and mistakes creep in despite our very best efforts to avoid them.” These words couldn’t have come at a better time. I had to remember the phrase on Tuesday again, and this is perhaps why you are even reading now about mistakes. I made another mistake.

It may seem small to a normal person, but Quantity Surveyors are NOT allowed to make mistakes. Whatever mistake I make is costly (money, time or quality).

This was how it went in my head after I realised I made a mistake: Oh no. Wow, I am so screwed. Yoh, God, why must this happen to me now? Tjo, I am so dead. What am I even going to do?  

My colleague (the company buyer) said he would call the supplier to ask if they could take the material back, and if they couldn’t, I must speak to Tom about it. Tom is not the guy you want to tell you’ve messed up. Tom is the guy whom you ask a question, and he asks you that same question while expecting an answer. Tom is that guy you think will rip you apart when he speaks to you. 

So the option of telling Tom meant digging my grave first before going to him to kill me. What surprised me about myself was how I admitted that I was wrong and was willing to face my fear (Tom). While travelling back to the office, I kept telling myself how I have grown so much. I think I painted a scary image of Tom, but Tom is probably one of the fairest people I’ve met. He doesn’t take nonsense and likes things to be done correctly.

In construction, we usually blame the next person. We always want to keep our backs clean, so if it means selling out the next person, we will do it. The Client will blame the Architect who will blame the QS who then blames the Contractor who blames the Suppliers. That’s just how we roll; it’s a flowchart of blames.

Admitting that I was wrong was an act of growth. Admission didn’t solve anything, nor did it prevent me from being given “an adult hiding” by my supervisor, but it was crucial.  

I have summarised the lessons I learned from this experience below:

1. The first step is admitting that you have made a mistake and owning up to the mistake. You also need to be willing to accept the consequences of your actions. It is not always pleasant, but you have made your bed, so you need to lie in it, right?


2. A mistake is something that has happened. It means that it is in the past, so it’s pointless dwelling on it. I get that sometimes our mistakes are so big, terrible, deadly, costly and so on, but a mistake is a mistake and what is common in all mistakes is the fact that it HAS already happened.


3. Do all you can to rectify what has happened. Oh, and please do remember that you can’t change the past. It is done. This isn’t Microsoft Word and Excel where you can click on the undo and redo icon. So think future and not past: What can I do to correct my mistake, instead of what can I do to erase my mistake?

4. Own up to your mistakes and don’ try to shift blame. Finding a proxy to stand in for you is emotionally straining. It is still emotionally straining even if someone is willing to take the blame on your behalf. Don’t carry unnecessary burdens. PS: Jesus is the only one that can lift heavy burdens, and that can take the blame on our behalf without us feeling guilty.

5. Learn from your mistake. You can’t repeat the same mistake over and over again. Owning up means accountability, and part of being accountable means not repeating the same mistake. The famous adage says: The first time you make a mistake it’s an accident, the second time you make the same mistake it’s on purpose, and the third time you make that same mistake it’s no longer a mistake, it’s a habit.

6. Finally, you are only human, so don’t beat yourself up when mistakes happen. Just breathe, admit, learn the lesson, rectify and remember that you are human and mistakes creep in despite our very best efforts to avoid them.

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