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The Fuckup Protocols

I promised myself I wouldn’t go out drinking that night. I was confident I’d follow through on this commitment. After all, I wasn’t even tempted to drink.

Until, suddenly, I was.

Next thing I knew, I was at the bar, sitting in my favorite stool and downing the tenth pint of my favorite cheap domestic lager.

Flash forward to the next day, I wake up at 2:00pm with a headache that could kill a horse, my mouth a desiccated wasteland tasting of tumbleweeds, and a Titanic sinking level of disappointment and regret.

Why the fuck did I do that? I was doing so well, too. I should have been stronger.

So the abusive litany of self-recriminations flowed as I plop-plop fizz-fizzed a couple akla seltzers, and started brewing a pot of coffee.

And that’s when three words popped brightly into my otherwise foggy and befuddled mind.

The Fuckup Protocols.

I still don’t know where they came from, but I knew intuitively and immediately what they were about. They were a call to create a set of rules, a method, for dealing with our inevitable fuckups. Not just fuckups of the inebriate variety, but any and all fuckups.

So that’s what I did.

The Fuckup Protocols are more than just a method of damage control too. They are kind of alchemy able to turn the dross of fuckup into the gold of self-improvement.

Despite that power, The Fuckup Protocols are also very simple.

I sat down to my journal and let The Fuckup Protocols write themselves. Without further adieu, here they are.

Use them.

Name the fuckup. Be as specific and concise as possible:

I got drunk when I promised myself I wouldn’t.

I lost my temper with John.

I binge watched The Golden Girls instead of working on my manuscript.

I dressed up like Rose from the Golden Girls and ate an entire cheese cake by myself in one sitting while thinking about my childhood in Saint Olaf.

Protocol 1: Be Specific

When identifying and admitting the fuckup it’s important to focus on a specific action (or inaction).

For example, “I was lazy” doesn’t qualify as a fuckup. But “I played video games instead of going to the gym,” or even, “I didn’t go to the gym like I promised myself” are proper fuckups.

Protocol 2: Don’t Personalize

You are not your fuckup.

You aren’t stupid, you acted stupidly.

You aren’t a drunk, you got drunk.

You aren’t a jerk, but you behaved like one.

You aren’t a failure, you failed.

You aren’t a fuckup, but you fucked up.

Protocol 3: Don’t Catastrophize

Don’t be a drama queen.

Don’t blow your fuckup out of all fucking proportion.

Whatever wagon you may have fallen from, if the wagon’s still there, you can get back on it.

Whatever relationship you may have hurt, so long as no one died then it’s probably mendable.

Even if you’ve made the same fuckup a hundred times, it doesn’t mean you are helpless and it’s hopeless (See: Don’t Personalize).

Protocol 4: Don’t Whitewash

The other side of the Don’t Catastrophize coin is don’t whitewash the fuckup or try to minimize it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t shift blame.

Even if someone else was involved in the fuckup, you are 100% responsible for your part of it and that’s the only part that concerns you.

There are no buts in Protocol 4. As in, I fucked up, but ….

You admit the fuckup is your fuckup. That’s Protocol 4 in a nutshell.

Protocol 5: Make Prompt Amends Where Appropriate

Did your fuckup lead you to fly off the handle and send angry texts? Then send an apology text.

Did your fuckup cause you to miss an appointment, break a promise, or otherwise undermine your trustworthiness? Then own that, and address that.

If needed” recognizes that not all fuckups negatively impact others, so you may not need to activate Protocol 5.

“And appropriate” recognizes that sometimes it’s best to let sleeping fuckups lie. If you think an attempt at making amends will only make things worse, then it’s probably best to avoid it.

Don’t linger on Protocol 5 either. Pull the band aid off quick. Do your mea culpas and move on quickly. 

Protocol 6: Find The Lesson

George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Protocol 6 appropriates this to say, “Those who don’t learn from their fuckups are condemned to repeat them.”

All fuckups major and minor . . . All missteps, mistakes, foibles, follies, bloopers, blunders, stumbles and flat on your face falls . . . are lessons incognito. It’s your job to identify those lessons and do your best to learn from them.


By sitting down and taking the time to dispassionately examine the fuckup while purposefully looking for any lessons hidden there.

Not just in your head, and not on a screen, but pen in hand, ink to paper.

Sometimes the lesson may be obvious. Sometimes it may not, and you‘ll have to do some digging. And sometimes the apparently obvious lesson isn’t the REAL lesson you need to learn at all, so do some digging anyway just to be safe.

When excavating your fuckup for lessons remember that the question is never Is there a lesson in this fuckup it’s What is the lesson in this fuckup. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve. But it’s on you to find out what lesson is being taught and then learn from it. Because however bad the fuckup may have been, failing to find the lesson in it is an even worse fuckup still. 

Don’t Be A Size Queen 

Sometimes the huge fuckups hold a seemingly small, even silly but still useful, lesson. And sometimes minor fuckups can lead to out-sized, seismic, life-shifting, revelations. Don’t ignore these small but important lessons. 

Remember: It’s not the size of the fuckup, it’s how you use it. (<- I couldn’t help myself.) 

Dig Deep

The bigger the fuckup, the deeper you may need to dig to find the lesson or lessons. Like I said, sometimes the obvious lesson isn’t the most important lesson. This is especially true with habitual fuckups.

Once again we blew a diet by eating an entire cheescake in one sitting. So we think the lesson is, “Don’t keep cheesecake in the house.”

That may be a good lesson, but the more you think about it the less it feels like the real lesson.

After all, you can go days without even thinking about cheesecake, no problem. Plus, you know that when you really want cheesecake, having none in the house won’t keep you from driving to the store to get it.

So you dig deeper and then it suddenly hits you . . . Every time you’ve had one of your hedonistic cheescake orgies it was after watching The Golden Girls. The Golden girls are the trigger of your habitual fuckup. As they are wont to be, The Golden Girls are the lesson. (Admittedly, I don’t know what you should do with this lesson. It’s not like you can NOT watch the Golden Girls. That would be wrong). 

Protocol 7: Be Grateful

In the last Protocol you learned a lesson or lessons that will contribute to your growth and skill at doing Life.

Be grateful for that.

Express your gratitude to God, the gods, the Universe, Life, the Wind, the Big Other, the Cosmic Whatever.

Think it. Better yet, say it aloud. Better yet, write it. Best of all, think it, say it, and write it.

Fuckups are valuable because they are earned. Like stripes, battle scars, and — as comedian Doug Stanhope joked — certain STDs.

Fuckups are markers on the road that prove you’re making progress and point the way ahead.

Fuckups are essential to progress and success. If success was always assured, there could be no thrill of victory because there would be no risk of defeat.

Without fuckups your life would be insufferably boring and futile. And you would be too.

So be grateful for them.

Except in the most egregious cases where others have been negatively impacted, most fuckups can be funny if looked at from the right perspective.

We can be such silly little creatures, we humans. And while it’s important to take our lives and goals seriously, it’s just as important to balance that out by lightening the hell up, and having a good laugh at our own expense.

As Maude said to Harold,

“Harold … everyone has the right to make an ass out themselves. You can’t let the world judge you too much.”

And you shouldn’t judge yourself too much either.

I smoked for about 25 years, for example. A nasty, serious, habitual fuckup. I tried and failed and tried and failed to quit more times than I can remember. For most of that time every failed attempt involved berating myself for being a failure, a quitter at quitting.

One of the lessons that helped me finally quit for good was to lighten the hell up on myself. And, to laugh at how silly it all was. I’d think about a cartoon I’d seen years before. It had an alien trying to explain smoking to another alien. “They light sticks on fire and put them in their mouths.”

Silly. Funny. Kinda accurate.

Find the funny.

Protocol 8: Commit To Improve

The Fuckup Protocols are about becoming better versions of ourselves. This means it’s not enough to stop at learning lessons from our fuckups, like we did in Protocol 7. We must apply those lessons. 

This could be through establishing new habits, or working to break old habits.

It could be establishing life rules, or modifying some you already have that aren’t working.

It could involve dramatic change, or gradual change.

It all depends on what you’ve learned and what you want (or no longer want) for your life. 

So what, you may be wondering, do you do if your commitment to improve fails and you keep having the same or similar fuckups, despite your best efforts using these Protocols?

Simple: Rinse and repeat.

How many times?

As many as it takes.

Some like to describe Life as a test. If so, there’s not a lot of multiple choice options, and there sure as hell aren’t many true or false questions. Personally, I think Life is more like a creative essay, and you’ll keep writing it, making mistakes, editing, writing more, and editing again until the day you finally graduate to six feet under or the starry heavens. Whichever you prefer.

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