Can a Mystery Novel Save Your Life?

Have you ever started something new – a job, a project – and immediately felt like it was going to kill you? That’s what the last week and a half were like for me as I took on the role of department chair at work.

The fault was partly my own: I hadn’t prepared well. I’d in fact been avoiding facing the reality of the transition. And, I was incredibly busy with a conference that I help plan and with the launch of my book. Add those things to the enormous amount of work that department chairs need to do at the start of a new semester and you can see why I felt several times like I just wasn’t going to survive with my sanity intact.

So, how does the mystery novel fit in? First, you should know that I’m an enormous fan of Louise Penny‘s Inspector Gamache series. There’s a scene in Still Life, the first book of the series, where a character reflects on advice that Gamache gives about the four statements that lead to wisdom. They are:

I was wrong.

I’m sorry.

I don’t know.

I need help.

I’ve used these phrases over and over in the last week and a half, and they’ve been incredibly useful. Each time I’ve been able to acknowledge without shame that I don’t know something and have reached out for help, I’ve gotten the help I needed. Each time I acknowledged a mistake and apologized, I was forgiven and received help fixing the error. And I made many fewer errors than I might have because I reached out for help so often.

When I found myself with more courses than faculty available to teach them, members of my department stepped up to take on extra work, and helped me in my last minute search for new faculty. When I made a mistake and accidentally assigned a senior adjunct faculty member a course he wasn’t available to teach, he helpfully suggested a switch I could make. When, after a long week, I made a mistake filling out some hiring paperwork, a member of the Human Resources department explained what I needed to do to fix it. And there were countless times when I needed to ask our department office manager, my outgoing chairperson, or my dean questions that they made themselves unbelievably available to answer.

And that was just at work. Friends and family members responded to my need for help, too, by sharing their experiences, listening to me vent, and showing confidence that I didn’t feel. I even got a pep talk from a former student who caught me at just the wrong – or right – moment on Facebook.

Of course I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a wonderful team both inside and outside of my department. If I worked with less generous people it would have a much more difficult experience than it already was. But, what got me through was the reaching out, the teamwork, and the help I received, and I wouldn’t have had any of that if I hadn’t kept reaching for those four phrases Ganache reminds us of through that wonderful series of mystery novels:

I was wrong.

I’m sorry.

I don’t know.

I need help.

4 thoughts on “Can a Mystery Novel Save Your Life?

  1. I love the Inspector Gamache series, too, Elizabeth, and those four simple phrases really are life-saving . . . and sanity-saving. Lovely post. Sounds like you have a good handle on your new position.

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    1. Thank you, Donna! I love good mysteries in general, but I really fell in love with Three Pines. As for that last bit about having a handle on the new position … I don’t know if I’d go that far just yet, but I certainly have a wonderful team around me and those four phrases have been life savers, as you said!

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  2. It’s really hard to work for or with infallible people. They’re not really infallible, but if they approach work with the attitude they are, they won’t ask for help, will double down on errors, and eventually crash. It’s much better to start from the position that things will fall through the cracks, that mistakes will be made and need to be handled, and that teamwork isn’t just for emergencies. I am so happy that you are finding out at the start that you have a lot of backup. Congratulations!

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    1. Agreed about those who see themselves as infallible or who are afraid to acknowledge that they aren’t. It’s hard to be vulnerable, especially at work, but so much better to have small failures and own them, and to ask for help and avoid the ones we can avoid, then to fall apart because of trying to do too much without a team. I’m just really lucky to have such a great team.

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