By Chuck Keller
Don’t you love watching toddlers learn to walk? They wobble, their little knees don’t bend, their little feet slap the floor, their outstretched arms dance in the air, and their eyes are wide open. They are excited to learn a new skill. And when they fall on their padded bums, they laugh. What a joy.
Now flash forward a few years.
The other day as I walked through the local super grocery store I observed a revealing event. A clerk was stocking house cleaning items when he inadvertently knocked a mop off the hook above him. It fell on his head. The mop was so light that it could not have hurt, but his reaction was revealing. He picked up the mop and slammed it on the floor. It was already on the floor. It couldn't get any more “on the floor.”
Even though we may chuckle at this scene, it is often the laughter of recognition because we have all done the same thing. We throw a little fit when we can’t control a situation, a person, an item, whatever. We may even throw a mop.
I am sure that the mop learned its lesson, but the stock clerk did not. The mop did not attack. The mop did not have nefarious expectations. It was an accident. No one was hurt. But it’s more than that. When did we stop laughing at our mistakes? Why do we take our failures so seriously? What do we reveal about ourselves when we pitch that little fit?
Yes, there are serious life and death decision that we will have to make, decisions that could affect many others, decisions that might have serious moral, ethical, legal, spiritual, or even financial consequences. But, you know, we experience little failures every day. I set the ribs afire in the oven. The first chair that I made crumbled when I sat on it. I have hit the wrong notes when I sing. I called someone the wrong name. Duh. We want to be perfect, but we are not.
Ultimately, though there are only two things that we can control: our actions and our reactions. And those reveal our character to the world. Watch a person learning a new skill. A little frustration is good for learning. That’s proven, but the reaction is where I want to focus. What happens when we miss the ball? What happens when we bomb a quiz? What happens when dinner fails? What happens when we hit the wrong note? What happens when we forget someone’s name? People get frustrated when they cannot control a situation, a person, the weather, whatever. Then they may throw a fit or a mop.
I once worked for a man who regularly claimed that he never made a mistake. He was serious. No one could ever question his judgment or actions. No one wanted to be around him because he was such a “difficult” person to work with. I will never forget the meeting where he threw his reading glasses across the room when he was challenged on a particular point. That revealed more of his character than he knew.
Mistakes allow us to learn about ourselves. They are valuable to our development. Mistakes don’t define us; they reveal us. Once we admit that we fail more than we succeed then we can learn from it.
Toddlers experience surprise and joy with each little success because they see their “failures” as baby steps to success. Shouldn’t we?