Learning From Mistakes

The important thing is to remember what you have learned from a failure of the past and apply it to your life today, as well as passing along to others your new-found knowledge acquired as a result of a past mistake or failure. Failing doesn't mean that you are a bad person who needs to be punished.
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I learned a very important lesson as a senior in high school that should have served me well for the remainder of my life. I say "should have" because periodically I forgot about it when the going got tough during my professional years.

I was a half-miler in a relatively small high school. At that time, schools were not divided into Class A and Class B and so forth. All schools competed against all the other schools in the state regardless of the sizes of the various student bodies. My times running the half mile indicated that I was one of the better high school middle distance runners in the state. We did not live all that far from one of the larger metropolitan areas of the state, and our track team often competed against the public high school from that city.

That other school had a very good half-miler who had never lost a race in high school. We were both seniors, and we had competed against each other for three years. There was one main difference between him and me: I was only seventeen years old and he was twenty-one years old--a military veteran who returned to high school to finish his degree.

We were competing in the district track meet--the first two places qualifying for the state track meet only two weeks later. Of course, I wanted to beat the other runner, but my main goal was to qualify for the state meet. It was the end of the season, and I was in really good condition. The meet was at night under the lights of his home field, and it was exciting. Just before the race, I made up my mind that I was going to win.

I was known for having a really strong "kick" on the last half of the last lap, and I usually lagged slightly behind the leader, saving my last burst or "kick" of energy until the end. This strategy had served me well for three years. But at the last moment, I decided to leave nothing at risk, and I made up my mind to stay right with the leader from the start. Considering the times of the other runners, I concluded that this would be a two-man race, and it was.

The track had eight lanes, and each lane, being farther out from the inside lane, added six to seven yards per lane in distance going around each curve--in the case of the half mile, four curves. The other runner baited me, and I took the bait. He slowed down on the straight stretches just enough to let me get even with him going into the turns. Instead of dropping back on the curves, I ran in the second lane on all four curves--I was determined to stay even with him every foot of the race, depending on my kick at the end to go ahead and win.

By the time we got to the finish line, I had run at least twenty-five yards farther than the other runner. And guess what--I had no kick at the end, and he beat me by about six inches. That night we both ran, up until that time, our fastest races. But he ran smarter and beat me.

That's a lifelong lesson we all need to pay attention to: we need to be who we are and not let who someone else is or how someone else performs dictate to us who we are or how we should act. When one is in the midst of living, this lesson is sometimes very difficult to remember.

This all came to mind last Sunday when I was listening to the weekly TV program, "Music and the Spoken Word," a program broadcast from in the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City and put on by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra. Although I am not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thoroughly enjoy this weekly program, which has continued being broadcast without interruption for more than eight decades, first on radio, and now on radio and TV.

In the "spoken word" part of the program last Sunday, the narrator, Lloyd Newell, referred to a college president speaking to the freshman members of the college's student body in their opening convocation. The college president assured the new students that "we will all fail every day," not an encouraging message for new students. But then he went on to explain what he meant.

He pointed out that what is important in life is learning how to fail successfully--in other words, by learning from our failures. Newell went on to say, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment." I used bad judgment the day of that race, but from that bad experience came good judgment for the future. And by the way, I did not make that same mistake two weeks later in the state track meet. Although I took second to a runner from a large St. Louis high school, I ran my fastest half mile in high school, set a record at our high school for the half mile, and finally beat my high school rival of three years.

So many times I hear people moaning and groaning--really beating up on themselves--for some of the foolish things they did in the past that continue to haunt them in the present: "if only I hadn't done that." Get over it! You did do it. But the important thing is remembering what you have learned from a failure of the past and apply it to your life today, as well as passing along to others your new-found knowledge acquired as a result of a past mistake or failure. Failing doesn't mean that you are a bad person who needs to be punished.

I am convinced that one of the big failures of education--in our homes, churches, schools, colleges, and graduates schools--is the failure to teach our young people from an early age, and to reinforce again and again regardless of age, that none of wants to fail and that we should try hard to succeed. But when we do fail, and we all will fail from time to time, we can learn from our failures. That's a lesson we all need to learn, practice, and tell other people about: one can and should grow from a failed experience.

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