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why we make mistakes

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Last week I picked up a book at the library called, Better by Mistake: the unexpected benefits of being wrong by Alina Tugend. The author, a journalist. takes a close look at how we view mistakes, finding that there are basically two approaches: the fixed mindset believes that we have a fixed amount of intelligence, talent, and potential for change, and assumes that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. The growth mindset believes that there is always the potential to do better, and mistakes are just part of how we learn. Therefore, it is important to take risks and develop perseverance in the face of inevitable setbacks.

In 2002, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker called, "The Talent Myth." He concludes that companies which use the star system, hiring the brightest and the best, those who have degrees from the most prestigious schools, and paying them hefty compensation, are not as effective and successful as companies which hire few stars, pay modest salaries, and promote according to seniority. By creating a culture which worships talent, the first type of company forces people into a fixed mindset, and Gladwell notes, "we know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies."

Tugend cites this example of a growth mindset: A promising junior executive of IBM was involved in a risky venture for the company and managed to lose over $10 million in the gamble. It was a disaster. When Tom Watson, the founder, called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, "I guess you want my resignation?" Watson said, "You can't be serious. We've just spent $10 million educating you!" For Watson, learning from mistakes was a part of moving toward success.

It is important to note that not all learning is equal. There is single loop learning, which is basically what a thermostat does; if it is too hot, it turns off, if it is too cold, it turns on. Single loop learning addresses only the immediate situation. This is good for routine tasks but inadequate in uncovering larger, latent problems. Double loop learning looks at the bigger picture, asking questions like, "Why is the thermostat set at 30 degrees?" or "Shouldn't we fix that big hole in the wall in order to make the heating system more efficient?" Double loop learning (looking beyond surface action or behaviour) is necessary to get at structural, systemic issues which might be causing the same mistakes to be made over and over again. Tugend observes that mistakes help point out flaws in how we approach work and life, and can teach us very valuable lessons.

Chris Argyris writes: "Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and put the blame on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most." Herein lies the difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism seeks to avoid mistakes because anything less than perfect is seen as a failure. In perfectionism, there is a constant pressure to prove oneself. In contrast, excellence strives for improvement and sees mistakes as part of the learning process. The emphasis is on learning from mistakes and not making the same mistakes again. The goal is not on proving oneself but on improving oneself. Perfectionism breeds despair because one never quite measures up to expectations, but those who strive for excellence are able to celebrate every small step forward.

The apostle Paul writes: "You see, all have sinned, and all their futile attempts to reach God in His glory fail." (Romans 3:23, The Voice) The word "sinned" here is the Greek word hamarton, and it is a general term meaning to miss the mark, like an archer would miss the target. This term encompasses intentional and unintentional missing of the mark, ignorance as well as deliberate rebellion. Essentially, the results of mistakes and sin are the same: we fall short, we hurt people, we get hurt.

So what should our response be to this dire news that we will never be good enough to reach God's glory? Frustration? Anger? Despair? Trying harder? Jesus' first words to his disciples did not remind them of their mistakes and sins, but invited them to embark on a journey of transformation: "Come, follow me!" The disciples made many mistakes along the way: believing that Jesus was there to overthrow the Roman empire, acting out of fear and doubt, displaying overconfidence and a lack of love, and misunderstanding the purpose of authority. Jesus' growth mindset is evident in many stories, but particularly in his interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). The first thing Jesus does is to remind her accusers of the bigger picture: no one is without sin, mistakes are part of humanity. Stop blaming. The second thing Jesus does is to remove condemnation from the situation and reorient it toward transformation. Jesus' response to failure is not to blame or condemn, but to invite people to a renewed way of living, of thinking, of acting (metanoia).

As someone who has perfectionist tendencies, I know the feeling of "never good enough." It is important to remind myself that God does not expect perfection; instead, he offers ongoing transformation.

"Let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us, [looking away from all that will distract us and] focusing our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Perfecter of faith [the first incentive for our belief and the One who brings our faith to maturity]," (Hebrews 12, Amplified Bible).

"I am confident that the Creator, who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world." (Philippians 1, The Voice).

"So lift up your hands that are dangling and brace your weakened knees. Make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame in you won't be put out of joint, but will heal." (Hebrews 12, The Voice)

God's part is the perfecting. My part is to embrace the learning and growing which comes from inevitable failure. God's part is to finish what he started, to perfect what he created. My part is to practice persistence on this journey, no matter what the setbacks. My part is to learn to avoid pitfalls, to straighten out any crookedness which might set me up for future mis-steps, and to strengthen and help those I meet along the path. (I did not take the time to develop it here, but Tugend points out that teamwork is one of the most important aspects of learning and improving. Together we are better. Note that Jesus always sent his disciples out in teams or in a group.)

Let us learn to rely not so much on our own efforts, but on the solidity of God's mercy and faithfulness. He is the one who called us to the journey, he is the one who continually upholds us along the way, and he is the one who will ultimately bring it to completion and fullness.


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