It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus].

Phillipians 3:12

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Whenever I think of the importance of learning – and growing – from mistakes, I think of a woman who was once on my staff whom I will call Alice because that wasn’t her name.

Alice was pretty competent but she was woefully lacking in confidence. She blamed her psychologically abusive husband, whom she eventually left after many years and many children -- although I think she would have helped her situation by taking more responsibility for it.

In any event, everyone on the staff dreaded those times when she made a mistake – because she usually took it so hard she would make more mistakes, and that would start her on a downward spiral where her performance suffered more and more until we could find a way to help her buck up her confidence again.

Wrong lesson

Her problem was that the first – and often the only – lesson she learned from a mistake was that she wasn’t very competent. That wasn’t usually true, but it functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given her frame of mind, she wasn’t likely to do well with other tasks until she could adopt a new frame of mind. That required her to achieve a victory of some sort, which became less likely the more she beat up on herself with each successive mistake.

In this way she reminded me of the proverbial basketball player who commits a turnover, gets upset with himself, and then in his anger and frustration draws a foul. I’ve watched more than a few who fall prey to this vicious cycle. Sometimes a single mistake leads to a whole game’s worth of dreadful play – and a team’s loss.

I spent a lot of time counseling and encouraging Alice, as did others on our staff. We all knew that for her performance to return to its normal level of competence we had to get her past her mistake. Often I encouraged her to take a lesson from her mistake and move on, wiser and less vulnerable to repeating the error.

Sometimes it worked. But not often.

Usually we had to wait until she inadvertently did something extraordinary that drew great praise from an outsider, or until the memory of her mistake gradually faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, she was very, very vulnerable to committing more errors and continuing her slide down the indices of confidence and competence.

She was a victim of the self-inflicted formula SE+LC=CD. Or as our headline puts it: Small Error plus Large Conclusion equals Chronic Disaster.

Self-talk important

How you talk to yourself is important. What do you say to yourself when you make a mistake? Do you calmly acknowledge it to yourself and to those who ought to know, and then ask yourself what lesson can be learned from it?

Or do you go all crazy and draw a large conclusion like “I’m not suited for this” or “I can’t do anything right?”  

If you take the latter course, it’s likely you quickly panic and imagine all sorts of terrible, even terminal consequences.

In addition, you put yourself in a very vulnerable position. First, in your panic you’re much more likely to make many more mistakes – some perhaps more serious that the first one that sent you down the path to self-destruction.

Second, you’re tempted to cover up your mistake by hiding it or even lying about your culpability.

In either case, you’ve seriously compounded your mistake because you are putting your trustworthiness at risk – and trust is the key to forging mutually-beneficial relationships that make excellence possible for you and your team.

Recovering from mistakes is usually not a huge problem. Restoring lost trust is nearly always a difficult challenge.

Focus on learning

The next time you mess up at work – or in a personal relationship – avoid inviting yourself to a pity party. Instead, focus on what you can learn from your mistake.

  • Were you overconfident? If so, decide that in the future you will pay better attention to instructions and details so that your outcomes more closely resemble your intentions.
  • Were you in over your head? If so, don’t conclude that “I’m not cut out for this.” Determine what it is that you need to learn to do better – and then learn it and do it.
  • Were you reluctant to ask for help when you needed it? Both pride and fear can isolate you when you need to be connected. Why didn’t you reach out for help? Where could you have found it? What can you do to get past your pride or fear the next time?
  • Were you too rushed? If so, how can you prioritize your time and tasks so it doesn’t happen again? Or what can you do to perform better under tight deadlines?

The key in all of this is to take off your Performance Hat and put on your Learner Cap – which, by the way, is a lot different from a Dunce Cap. Focus less on demonstrating your ability and focus more on your development. Your goal is not so much to impress as it is to grow.

Moral of the story

That’s the moral of a story told often in business circles. Tom Watson, Sr. was CEO of IBM at the time and, as the story goes, a young, promising IBM executive at IBM made a mistake that cost the company $10 million.

When the young employee was called to Watson’s office, he was absolutely sure why Watson wanted to see him. So he wrote out his resignation and handed it to Watson as soon as he walked in the door.

Watson looked at the resignation and said, “You can't be serious. We've just spent $10 million dollars educating you!"

Not every boss will be as wise as Watson. And the day may come where you commit an error that costs you your job or a close personal relationship.

It’s okay to mourn your loss. In fact, it’s probably unavoidable. Big losses cause big pain.

But rest assured, the pain will be even larger long-term if you don’t learn from it. Learn all you can and resolve to make use of what you’ve learned going forward.

You’re not alone

And don’t forget to turn to Jesus in times of distress – large or small. Jesus loves you unconditionally. He loves you so much that he gave up his own life for yours. That’s how much you matter to him – no matter what you’ve done or failed to do.

Take some consolation and confidence in how much Jesus thinks of you and cares for you.

Secure in his love, you can face up to your mistakes and learn volumes from them.

Happy learning ... and being loved!

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