Careful and Cautious

Chance Agrella

There was a very earnest book I loved — as one does — when I was a teenager. It was called the Book of Qualities. It took various qualities — compassion, anger, beauty and personified them in short whimsical stories.

The one that always got me was Perfection. The write-up starts with “Perfection is careful but not cautious. She burned her hands many times before she learned to pay attention.”

I was thinking about careful versus cautious recently at work, especially when talking to a student group of soon-to-be consultants. They asked us how we deal with difficult clients. After a bit of dark laughter, every consultant can share a story, but mine started with this: You will get yelled at.

And it’s not because you’re a bad consultant, though who knows, some of them may turn out to be bad consultants. But we’re human. We make mistakes. We get tired. We forget things. We’re not machines. There will be times when you will be absolutely right and still yelled at. Clients — sometimes — they just yell. Because they’re human. And make mistakes, are tired and forgetful, and also not machines.

I will confess something because it’s important to say. Sometimes the fear of being yelled at stops me cold. Sometimes I get that feeling of holding my breath before I send an email or jump into a conversation with my opinion. My finger hesitates and hoverers over the send button. In that moment, I’m cautious. And it holds me back.

As years go on, I try to embrace careful. Careful is getting all the facts and data. Careful is a little extra work. Careful is spell-checking your emails. Careful is checking one more time.

But careful needs courage, especially in consulting. Careful is doing your homework, but courage helps you find some comfort in knowing that you don’t know everything. It’s about making what is the best decision with the information at hand. Careful puts in caveats, but courage and careful together hit send.

I see a lot of junior colleagues who are veering between cautious and careful — burning their hands before they learn to pay attention. They wait and wait, hoping for ideal moments. They are too cautious to dive into the messy unpredictability of our client’s needs. Too far to the other side, careful can also limit you. You simply can’t get started; you can’t get out of editing. Either way, trust me, you just have to jump in and roll up your sleeves and do what you can.

Perfectionists are their own worst critic. Their measuring stick is most often directed against their own heads for all the mistakes (real or perceived) made. But perfectionists can also be really compassionate. In the Book of Qualities, Perfection grieves “by how fiercely we hate ourselves and yet refuse to change.” Perfection “honors our flaws.”