Since my children were small, I’ve told them, “Mistakes are our friends. Mistakes help us learn.”
True. But some personalities are more shaken by errors than others, especially when errors are made in front of an audience. Whereas one of my children would laugh off tripping in the school lunch room, another would want to crawl in a hole until he was 20. Personally, I understand how he feels.
As an introvert—or perhaps as simply a human—I prefer to learn in private from substantial books, prayerful reflection, or careful observation. But public mistakes are a different, and needed, type of mentor.
Four principles guide me as I seek to learn from less than private errors. I’ll attempt to illustrate them through a recent experience.
Two years ago, I was invited to do a two-day soul-care retreat for a brilliant group of lead pastors. Our time together was rich and surgical. However, even though I’ve been speaking and teaching for thirty years, I didn’t end well.
Entering the last hour of my presentation, I realized that the remainder of my message would take me over my allotted time. Honoring time specifications is important. Especially in a new context, my motto as a public speaker is cut before you rush. What to cut is always the challenge.
In the moment, my weary mind chose to cut my prepared conclusion, and instead offer one more spiritual formation principle. The ending was so weak, that the participants looked around at each other when I said, “Amen,” as if to ask, “Was that it? Is she done?” They were gracious and generous in their gratitude for the two days, but I immediately knew that the quality of the ending was out of step with the rest of the teaching.
Step One: Sleep on it
Mistakes are best learned from with a fresh mind. After the retreat, I slept, and then had enough brain to discuss the situation with Jesus, my husband, and a dear friend. Sometimes, the rest reveals that I’m overreacting. But in this case, a fresh mind confirmed my guess. What I sensed was neither imagination nor perfectionism: I truly could have “done better.”
For some, the phrase “I could have done better” will be familiar and for others it will be entirely foreign. Some personalities don’t seem to evaluate their work at all: what was, was. Others find it too painful to even consider the possibility that they might have “done better,” so they live in denial (declaring all their efforts to be their “best”) or in self-protection (declaring that everything they do is their “worst”).
And then there are those of us in middle who are too realistic to call everything we do “amazing” and too emotionally honest to not distinguish between done and well-done.
The motivations may be many. I won’t make any assumptions about yours. For me the “why” is some combination of leaning academic, loving excellence, having an over-developed concern for how I use other’s time, and being a teacher.
Step Two: I ask Jesus if He died on the cross for this mistake.
The question is perspective producing. Was Jesus taking upon Himself on the cross the penalty for Alicia being too weary to discern the most meaningful way to conclude the retreat?
Which immediately takes this out of the realm of sin and repentance into the realm of humanity and humility. Both emotionally and spiritually, the distinction is critical for the stewardship of my emotions.
Step Three: I ask Jesus for permission to process the mistake.
In other words, I don’t assume that it is wise for me to recount my steps. If Jesus is not leading me there, for the health of my soul, I dare not go there alone.
In this instance, I felt the go ahead, so Jesus and I opened my notes and walked through the experience together. And, He mentored me. By the time we finished processing together, I added two practical steps to my prep to help me anticipate being weary at the end of such intense teaching days.
Step Four: I tell myself the truth about what I am feeling and then work to keep those feelings in Jesus’ presence.
Anyone I’ve mentored will tell you that one of my core convictions is that honesty is a friend of intimacy with God.
So, how did I feel about the whole experience? Emotionally, a little disappointed that the conclusion didn’t harmonize with the introduction. Professionally, a little worried that the ending might have soured the previous content’s fruitfulness. Personally, a little humbled to have ended poorly in the presence of such generous souls and scholars.
Pain. Worry. Humility. Keeping honest emotions in Jesus’ presence doesn’t make them disappear but it does keep them free from infection. In time, such feelings will slowly be absorbed by Jesus’ love.
Mistakes are our friends. Mistakes help us learn.
True. And learning with Jesus amplifies God-consciousness, decreases self-consciousness, and reminds us that the goal of following Jesus isn’t avoiding mistakes, it’s attending with intentionality to His presence.
Dr. Alicia Britt Chole is a leadership mentor, speaker, and award-winning writer. She lives in the quiet countryside of Missouri with her husband of 27 years and their three children through the miracle of adoption. Her favorite things include honest questions, thunderstorms, jalapeno’s, and pianos in empty rooms.