sorry, not sorry
Up until 3 months ago, I apologized profusely. Every day. For everything. Anything, really. Sure, I also apologized for dumb shit that normal people do, like forgetting happy hour plans or spilling wine on the floor. But I mainly apologized for things that weren’t really my fault. I said “I’m sorry” just to fill air time. I apologized in deference to people I admire and care about just to humble myself or take myself down a notch and not take attention from others who probably deserved it. I apologized for moving someone’s water bottle so I could put my laptop down on the table. I got to a point where I was basically apologizing for existing. As if Byron, just standing there breathing, was an unexpected hassle that required contrition.
I said I’m sorry as a knee-jerk reaction, unconsciously, a genuinely appropriate and natural response to almost any given scenario of the human experience. It was a throw-away phrase that I used like a verbal crutch to my communication. If I couldn’t find the words to fit a situation, I would apologize instead. It felt humble I guess. Safer, really. As if I were anxiously trying to punish myself for being human.
My poor wife had to deal with my incessant apologies every day as well, for things that don’t even make sense. I apologized for doing dishes and being in the way while she is cooking. I said I’m sorry when she had a hard day or someone bailed on her at the last minute. I apologized for wanting pizza instead of thai food.
But nothing compares to the amount of apologizing I did at work…
I begged forgiveness for other people’s mistakes and for things out of my control. I said I’m sorry for not doing things that I didn’t know I needed to do or wasn’t supposed to. When it was time to call out peers, juniors or team members for unacceptable work or terrible fuck-ups, even in private, 1:1 or with a manager, I found a way to blame myself as well, just to even the score a little. As if I had to break off a little blame for myself to make sure it was still flavorful.
I apologized for giving feedback to my designers. I said I’m sorry for delaying an important meeting so that our team could be better prepared. I apologized for being late to conference calls because I was held up presenting work to executives or fighting for something critical with stakeholders. I apologized for being on vacation.
My perception of the wanton inconvenience I imposed on my friends and coworkers was painfully real to me; my verbal and written correspondence coated with thick layers of self-doubt and deprecation. I’m sure this is a problem that has carried on for years in some form or another, but it’s never been anything I thought would change or was worth changing, until recently. A few times, my wife has even called me out, saying “why are you sorry? Why would you apologize for that?” when I would use the throw-away phrase. But it didn’t do much to stem the real problem at the time.
Then a few things happened in rapid succession. Wifey started school, sucking up huge chunks of time and energy. I started filling up my time with new hobbies, gaming and side projects. I started writing again. We traveled more than usual. I simplified my responsibilities at work, to better understand what was making me unhappy and restless. We got a puppy and fell in love with her. I quit my job at Disney which was both emotional and cathartic. I took some time off to reflect, rest, and be mentally ready for a new challenge. I started a new job. I began traveling coast to coast for weeks at a time. I started watching movies and TV shows that were backlogged, listening to new podcasts and audiobooks that I never got around to before. My weekends and holidays got booked up with friends, family and commitments. Instagram accounts filled up with travel and puppy pictures, reaching maximum heart-eyes emoji capacity. It was exciting and cool and interesting being us.
Unfortunately, with every new achievement, challenge or experience, the pressure increased, and the volume of my apologies grew exponentially louder along with the accompanying self-doubt, and the gnawing fear that being absent from home required a special blend of genuine apology and profuse throw-away sorries than ever before. My self confidence was taking a serious hit, even on the verge of so much change and exciting new opportunities, as I was being crushed under the weight of my self-imposed atonement. I didn’t recognize this as an actual problem until mid-summer.
In my first big presentation in front of our entire digital organization, I was nervous. The room in Miami was hot, filled with 200 people breathing, and I was wearing full east-coast business attire. I only had a few days to prepare, which is normally fine, but I didn’t know these people and I was very very new still. I introduced myself, showed a couple slides about what I’m hoping to accomplish over the next few months, shared some funny pictures of the puppy and places I’ve lived and worked, and overall I think I apologized or deprecated myself somehow at least 3 or 4 times throughout the presentation. This is how I introduced myself to an entire department. Sweaty, anxious, hungry and apologetic. “I’m sorry for being here and taking up more of the limited oxygen in this hotbox of a conference room... I’ll be out of your way shortly, I heard there were bagels.”
Of course I didn’t use those words, but in my mind, that’s what I was saying.
That evening, we were at a happy hour event celebrating the day’s work and some big wins for the organization, when this guy walks up and starts chatting with me. Being new, I welcomed the conversation. Not long into the discussion, he gives me a couple back-handed compliments that were jabs at my presentation earlier in the day. I laughed it off, shook his hand and went back to counting my drink tickets. He was kind of an asshole, so I didn’t think much of it.
Later that week, while watching House of Cards in my hotel room, I had a realization. Robin Wright’s character Claire refuses a throw-away apology from her husband, Kevin Spacey’s Francis, because it wasn’t something that really was his fault, and it certainly isn’t in his nature to say he’s sorry disingenuously. Everything he does is intentional, calculated and part of a plan. Frank is also a power-hungry asshole, but there was something in the moment that resonated with me. There was a parallel I was ignoring in real life. Similar to Claire, my wife also calls me out for apologizing needlessly. Then it dawned on me, the dude at the happy hour was essentially getting at the same thing… by standing up in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met and apologizing to them before I’d even done anything, I was basically saying that I didn’t deserve a seat at this table. I was forfeiting my hand before anyone got a chance to look at my cards.
I pressed pause and let that sink in.
I decided to try an experiment (I like calling it an experiment, because it sounds like science and makes it easier to fail without being too upset): I would try to stop saying sorry for everything and generally be more proactive in my communication. Even if I was kind of sorry, I wouldn’t say it, I would try and refocus on something else that would be genuinely valuable in the dialogue. An authentic statement or comment that moved a conversation forward, and not a throw-away comment that dwelled in the negative or self-deprecating.
For the last 3 months, I’ve almost entirely given up saying “I'm sorry.” It is pretty much stricken from my vocabulary. I don’t use it in emails, I don’t say it to my coworkers or my boss, and I don’t text it to my friends. There have been multiple times I’ve caught myself typing out an apology or excuse, but I erase it immediately and instead, take an extra minute to simplify my message, give the facts that I know, and propose a plan, assign support, or identify steps to address or fix whatever is broken.
The results were immediate. Here’s what I learned by cutting out apologies across the board for 3 months…
- My professional and personal correspondence by email and text is immediately shorter, more succinct, more actionable and tactical when a problem needs solving. I don’t dwell on how something happened in that moment, but how it can be fixed. It helps remove blame from the equation to focus on results.
- I’m more decisive. I pause a bit longer before I give feedback because I dont want it to be a throw-away comment open to interpretation, trying not to use filler text when I know something is off. Not using throw-away words and phrases during review sessions helps me communicate clearly to my teams with more intention, purpose and confidence when I give feedback they need. It feels like stronger and more helpful feedback and direction.
- I am more accountable for my actions, words and decisions. I self-monitor more than usual. I fuss a bit more over what I’m committing to and what people are asking of me in the moment. I end up holding myself to a slightly higher standard knowing I’m not going to apologize for making a certain decision with the information and context I have. If I’m grilled about it later, I have stronger rationale and can stand by it, and if it needs to be better, it can be.
- I feel more in control. I feel more confident. I don’t need to make laborious or elaborate excuses for normal dumb stuff that happens. When I’m late to a meeting because I’m on the phone with executives or critical stakeholders, I don’t stumble into the meeting apologizing. I simply say thank you for waiting. I have fires to put out spontaneously because that is my job. I don’t need to apologize for prioritizing effectively.
- I’m more ruthless with my calendar. I no longer apologize for asking people to move meetings around or cater to my schedule if I’m critical to attendance. I am extremely intentional about the meetings I accept and allow to block up my time.
- Hard to say without data (I’ll ask my wife later), but I think overall people respect me more at work, and respect my opinions and contribution. I try really hard to get people unblocked, help nudge design along, and actively steer the vision for where I want our design systems to go moving forward. If I hesitate or say I’m sorry while I do those things, why should anyone trust me to lead them? I certainly wouldn’t deserve a seat at the table.
- On the flipside, my small talk has taken a serious nose dive. Actively avoiding throw-away words has made me quieter and more introspective in conversation. I try harder to find genuine, useful things to say and ask, and sometimes I just don’t say anything because I don’t want to just fill the air. I’m sure it makes me more awkward in the elevator, but people will get used to it.
All that said, of course I genuinely apologize for dumb things I do, like spilling my water bottle or being clumsy. I’ve taken the blame for other people strategically, when the individual or team needed protection from unnecessary scrutiny. I’ve apologized for missing a couple things I should have caught earlier. I use different language though. It’s rarely “I’m sorry” or “apologies,” it’s more like “Hey I should have caught that thing. I’ll focus on that more this week so we don’t have to deal with it again.” With intention. Purposeful.
Given so infrequently, my apologies feel authentic and meaningful. I’ve tried to keep track since June, but I think I’m down to about one sorry a week. One every two weeks if I’m careful. The only notable exception is this flight back home to Seattle. I had a full glass of wine on my inflight tray, and as I was sending off a few work emails, there was a sudden bump and my wine glass spilled everywhere; on the floor, on my neighbor and all over my lap. It was weird because I must have hit it with my laptop or something but didn’t really know, so I apologized to everyone immediately out of shock and instinct, for making a huge mess.
A few minutes later as the flight attendant brought more paper towels, the guy in the seat in front of me apologized for banging his seat back suddenly and causing the spill. Ha! It wasn’t even my fault! I’m totally not counting that one… that’s all you, buddy.