Farm work was just one way Nicholas and I made a few bucks. When we were teenagers, our aunts and uncles would also hire us to babysit their little rugrats — a questionable decision considering how bad we were at keeping a watchful eye on our boss in the hayloft. And in many ways, stacking haybales in the summer heat was the much easier job. 

For starters, there was Ria. Oh, dear lord, Ria. It would be a kindness to say she had the temperament of a honey badger with hemorrhoids. Judging by her impressive set of lungs, this rage-filled demon child seemed destined to be either an opera singer or an Olympic swimmer.

From the moment her parents left the house, our little cousin wailed. Standing in her crib, Ria would grab the rails, throw her head back and scream. For hours. The house trembled as the shrieking banshee made it very clear how she felt about babysitters.

Naturally, Nicholas and I were useless at calming her down. No amount of comforting, bribing, cajoling or ignoring could soothe the savage beast.

She was the Breaker of Babysitters. And she was very good at her job.

Then there was our cousin Erinn, who lived down the road from Ria’s family. Looking after Erinn and her three older siblings started out as a pretty sweet gig: my aunt and uncle’s farm boasted a barn for kick-ass games of hide-and-seek, better snacks than we had at home and a VHS collection featuring an all-you-can-watch buffet of Disney movies.

However, as Erinn filled her diaper with a nightmare of unholy excrement, we realized that babysitting wasn’t all fizzy pop and Little Mermaid sing-alongs. Holding her as far from me as possible, I carried the filthy sewage baby to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Nicholas recruited Erinn’s big sister, Angela, to walk us through this diaper-changing ordeal.

Nicholas and I gagged in unison as I peeled back the diaper to reveal the output of her heinous anus. Over the next several traumatic minutes, we cleaned up Erinn’s befouled butt. Only when the dirty diaper was disposed of and Erinn in a reasonable state of cleanliness did we dare allow ourselves to breathe once more.

“Okay, now the cream,” instructed Angela, pointing to a jar next to the change table.

Nicholas and I exchanged confused looks. “You have to put the cream on her so she doesn’t get a rash,” she explained.

“How?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“With your hand,” Angela said.

Nope. Nope nope nope. Mopping up feces with baby wipes was one thing. But smearing cream onto a naked baby’s butt? Forget about it.

Still, we had a job to do. And after some consideration, I popped out to the kitchen and began rummaging around. A minute later I returned with a butter knife in hand. Unscrewing the lid of the jar of diaper rash cream, I dug in. I then proceeded to butter up Errin’s butt as if I was icing a cake.

A rather elegant solution if you ask me.

Once we had Erinn properly slathered, we slapped a fresh diaper on her, plopped the knife into the kitchen sink and made it back to the living room in time to hear Ursula the Sea Witch sing “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”

I’m sure by this point Angela was questioning her parents’ babysitter vetting process. 

My babysitting career was peppered with face-palms and fails. But despite coming home to cream-smeared cutlery and screaming babies, our aunts and uncles continued to throw us into the thick of things. And sure enough, with time and practice, we started to get the hang of it.

Eventually, I learned how to keep my cousins entertained, make a decent bologna sandwich and ensure the house didn’t burn down. Slowly but surely, I grew from awful to adequate. And for five bucks an hour, that was good enough for me.

My babysitting misadventures showed me that the only way to get better at something is by putting the work in and failing forward. They also reminded me to cut myself some slack if I wasn’t good at something right out of the gate.

Because everybody makes mistakes, and usually the only way to become good at something is by making tonnes of them. So when you screw up, resist the urge to get defensive or blame others. Instead, own your missteps and spend your energy on finding ways to avoid similar problems in the future.

Whatever obstacle you’re facing — whether it’s writing a book, starting a new job or learning how to change gag-inducing dirty diapers — don’t get discouraged by your early suckiness. If it’s important to you, keep at it and give yourself time to get your feet under you.

It’s a lesson that helped me during my leukemia journey. Because settling into the role of cancer patient was a steep learning curve. In the beginning, I struggled to keep track of which meds I needed to take when. It took a lot of trial and error to discover chemo-friendly foods to eat. And I got lost on multiple occasions trying to find my way around Princess Margaret Hospital.

But like those babysitting gigs, I eventually found my groove. And before long, things were running as smooth as a baby’s buttered bottom. 

Helping your employees find their feet 

For my aunts and uncles, I’m sure putting their trust in babysitters like me and Nicholas was a bit scary. Especially when they came home to find suspicious silverware in the kitchen sink. But their willingness to let go of control and hand over the reins was the only way for us to get the hang of things.

Throughout my career, I’ve had my share of my-way-or-the-highway micromanagers who had a hard time relinquishing control. But I’ve also had very positive experiences. Indeed, my favourite bosses were the ones who were okay with me screwing up — as long as I learned from my mistakes. 

They were the ones that let me fail forward, understanding that the only way I was going to get better was by actually doing the work.

So if you’re in a managerial position, learn to let go. Give your employees responsibilities to sink their teeth into — even if there’s a good chance they’ll bite their tongue in the process. It not only gives them the experience they need to improve, but it often motivates them to work harder as they feel a sense of ownership over a project.

When problems do happen, see it as an opportunity to help your employees grow. Slap their wrists if you must, but be sure to take the time to explain why a butter knife shouldn’t be involved in the diaper-changing process. And afterwards, don’t be afraid to let them try again.

Next: Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools