One of my earliest, most mortifying moments took place in the seventh grade when, spurred on by my moronic buddies, I told Shellie Shultz that she was a fool for liking me.
This was a particularly tragic blunder because not only did I make her cry and feel badly, I secretly had a crush on Shellie. I actually managed to hurt her and break my own heart at the same time. Also, to the best of my recollection, she was a 1970s version of a hottie. I was callous, mean, and untrue to my own feelings. It was a really bad decision that I instantly regretted and wished I could take back.
It took me years to get over that one.
I've had my professional moments of mortification, as well. In my agency days, I had a particularly petty and nasty client who liked to harangue me and my team. To make matters worse, this client represented the biggest account in the office, so there was a lot riding on the relationship. But he was a bully; at one point he essentially accused one of my team members of dishonesty and unprofessional behavior, which was completely uncalled for. I did not step up and put him in his place.
If I'm being totally honest, I'll admit I was worried about angering the client and potentially losing the account. I was also just plain scared of confronting this intimidating person. So rather than stand up and fight for my team, I kept silent in the face of egregious behavior.
That happened 22 years ago and I still wish I could go back and relive that conversation. I'd like a do-over.
This brings me to Asamoah Gyan, the Ghanaian soccer player who missed a penalty kick in the final play of extra time during the World Cup quarterfinals. His missed shot ultimately cost his team, his country, and his entire continent a chance at advancing toward the championship.
Talk about needing a do-over. I can't imagine how he's moving on. There were throngs of people in cities throughout Africa gathered in the streets to watch and listen to the game. The hopes of millions were riding on him and his teammates. But in one crucial moment, his world-class skills eluded him. The ball hit the crossbar instead of the net. An entire continent gasped as Gyan clasped his hands to his head in utter shock.
Every morning he has to wake up and relive a moment that will forever define him, despite a superstar career that helped make Ghana's team a World Cup contender.
World-class athletes, celebrities, and politicians also have the unfortunate phenomenon of digital media to contend with. Their mistakes are caught on tape and replayed endlessly - their moments of failure are frozen in time and just a Google click away from being relived. I'm not sure how I'd do if I had to watch my lunchroom performance from seventh grade on instant replay.
But these famous people also get help in unexpected ways. Apparently, Nelson Mandela personally called Gyan to ease his pain and remind him how proud the continent of Africa was of him and his teammates.
I know that most of us will never get Mandela to help us get over our foibles. We also can't recreate history or alter errors we've made. But we can own up to our mistakes, apologize, and, when appropriate, ask for forgiveness.
And, most importantly, we can forgive ourselves.
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.