When it Comes to Mistakes, Here is a Formula for Disaster

When it Comes to Mistakes, Here is a Formula for Disaster

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.
Philippians 3:12
What are we to make of mistakes – most especially our own?
Having worked most of my life in media, where employers pay huge sums to make sure all of our subscribers see all of our mistakes, I soon came to see them as opportunities for learning and growth. How else could I deal with them?
It turns out that eating crow and humble pie can be very good for you -- once you get over the humbling taste.
But discussion of the meaning of mistakes always takes me back to the trials of a woman on one of my newspaper staffs. I’ll call her Alice because that wasn’t her name.
Alice was a competent person woefully lacking in confidence. She blamed that on her psychologically abusive husband, whom she eventually left after many years and many children. Whatever the reasons,
everyone on the staff came to dread those times when she made a mistake.
I can’t recall her making any serious mistakes, but the problem was that whenever she made a mistake, she took it so hard that it triggered a whole series of other mistakes that made all our lives more difficult. It also set her off 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 in the wake of a mistake, 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.
I spent a lot of time counseling and encouraging Alice, as did others. We all knew that in order for her performance to return to its normal 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 done something extraordinary that drew great praise from an outsider, or until the memory of her mistake gradually faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, she was 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. That’s “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 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. That puts you in a very vulnerable position. First, in your panic you’re much more likely to make 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 being loved and learning
The next time you mess up at work – or in a personal relationship – avoid inviting yourself to a pity party. Instead, take a deep breath, remind yourself that God loves you unconditionally, without regard to your performance, and then 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 Loved Learner’s Cap – which, by the way, has nothing in common with 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.
You’re not alone
Just 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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Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.