Monday, January 11, 2010

Learning from Mistakes


One of my favorite sayings is, “It is better to have tried something and failed than to have tried nothing and succeeded.” This philosophy is reflected in a section of Dave Ellis’s book Human Being entitled “Appreciate Mistakes.”

Ellis’ approach is that mistakes are fertile ground for growth if we take the time to get over guilt, shame, and blaming and are willing to learn from them. Since I have participated in some colossal blunders in my time (and dragged others with me), I am grateful for his perspective. I don’t know Ellis’ religious bent, but I find the idea rooted in my understanding of God and God’s dealings with us.

There are some empowering concepts that can come from mistakes. First, we can learn new behaviors. It is easy to rely on old habits but doing so only replicates the same mistake. New behaviors help us to do things differently the next time and, perhaps, come out with a more productive outcome.

Second, we can set more realistic goals. Sometimes we bite off too much by overestimating our capabilities, resources, or available time. Mistakes help us to be more realistic about what we can really accomplish.

Third, we can learn to work more effectively with others. This may mean listening more attentively to the hopes and aspirations of teammates, sharing more of the responsibility, or asking for help when we get in over our heads.

Fourth, we can be honest with ourselves. When something goes wrong, I find it easy to look elsewhere for the cause of the failure. Blame is not the answer; clear assessment is. I have to be willing to recognize my role in the situation first and then allow others the freedom to assess their own responsibilities.

I was fortunate to have a supervisor early in my ministry who understood this concept. I shared with him one time a list of things that had not worked out as I had planned. I suppose I was seeking some absolution. It came in the form of his response: “Keep it up. It’s the only way to find out what WILL work.”

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