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For many years, I maintained a computer folder labeled simply: MISTAKES.

In it went all the things I had promised to do and later regretted: The two-week writing workshop agreed to under pressure, the free keynote lecture promised as a favor for a friend, the conference abstract, the collaboration from hell. Some of these mistakes had generated a lot of paperwork. And putting them into a single folder solved the immediate problem of how to organize it.

It also provided an arresting visual: Every time I opened my computer, I would see this folder, a reminder that my screw-ups were so copious as to warrant their own special filing system.

But I continued to add to the mistakes folder, seemingly unable to draw any useful lessons from its accumulating contents. So lately, I’ve added a second level of opprobrium, borrowed from my time as a journalist: The SETREC , a sharp lash of a word that stands for “setting the record straight.”

It’s now the rage to fulminate against the “lamestream media” – from the left and the right. Yes, the business has its faults. But I don’t recognize the monster painted by journalism’s detractors. Journalism as I knew it was also something else: The profession, which I entered at the malleable age of 21, was for me the poor woman’s PhD. It offered a no-nonsense approach to the world that, for those of us who came of age in it, will forever color the way we interact with power.

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Under the guidance of veterans, I learned never, never to assume, to verify every claim, to demand at least two sources, to seek out and evaluate other points of view, and to stick to the facts. But the greatest of my journalism lessons came by way of the SETREC.

It’s a practice that is still maintained by the best journalistic institutions, albeit now digitized and called by different names.  When I started as a reporter at the The Miami Herald in the 1990s, the SETREC was a form, just a page long, that reporters were compelled to fill out when an error had made its way into a published story. The form was a hard copy, and it went into your file.

I can still recreate most of the form from memory. It went something like this:

*******************************************

Headline of Story:

Date/Section:

Reporter(s):

Editor:

The error:

The correction:

How the error happened:

How I will prevent it from happening again:

*******************************************

Each time I wrote anything, I double and triple-checked it, imagining what embarrassing journalistic sin I would have to admit to: I just assumed she was the owner of the house! Or I thought the John Smith in the police report was the same John Smith who is the mayor!

But it was that last line in the form — How I will prevent it from happening again  — that made all the difference. It was not enough to admit a mistake. One was compelled by this sadistic-seeming act of bureaucracy to reflect on its genesis. It had a transformative effect. Most of us struggle to maintain our fragile egos. Faced with a mistake, we’d just as soon forget it as quickly as possible. The SETREC forces you to confront it in the most humbling way possible. And to bring your imaginative powers to bear on preventing its reoccurrence.

I’m no longer a journalist. But after finding myself making the same mistakes over and over again in my professional and personal life, I decided to start filling out my own personal SETRECs. Maybe now that this caustic election is over, the entire nation can take up this humbling practice:

 

**********************************************

Title of the mistake:

Date of the mistake:

Other person(s) involved:

Synopsis of the mistake:

How did I get myself into it?

What can I do to prevent a similar mistake in the future?

************************************************

The form is vague enough to accommodate a range of errors and lapses. It has helped me understand when and why I’m more likely to say yes to something I don’t really want to do – like being on a panel after I get a bad vibe from the organizer.  It’s allowed me to examine my patterns of passivity and my ambivalence about ambition. And I’ve formulated detailed plans to keep me from falling into the same old traps. Recently, after remaining a silent witness to a verbal bullying I used it to help me figure out what to do the next time I’m in a meeting and someone subtly denigrates a colleague: “You may have a good point there, Bob, but it got lost when you used the word ‘naïve’. Can you rephrase your idea so it doesn’t sound personal?”

As a young reporter, I chafed at the SETREC form. I was young and still thin-skinned. I took every admission of error as a charge of weakness. In reality, I was suffering from an excess of self-regard and ego preservation.

Today, I am able to see the SETREC for the gift it was: a chance to catalog my error, examine how and why it occurred and plan for a better tomorrow. It is the most humane of practices, a spiritual cleansing more powerful than confession. The SETREC now improves my life in the same way it improved my reporting. Now before I agree to travel somewhere, before I utter that hurtful retort, before I say yes to working with someone I don’t like, I think: Am I going to have to fill out a form about this?

Ana Menendez, a former journalist, has published two novels and two short story collections.  She is also a winner of the Pushcart Prize for short fiction. She can be reached at anamenendezopinion@gmail.com

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