Learning from Our Mistakes

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Sister Janet Lee and President Rex Lee

"I remember vividly a distant Sept. morning from my past. I had just instructed my first-grade students to write their names on the top of a paper after folding it in half. There was a bit of a scurry as everyone completed this two-part task rather quickly. Everyone, that is, except John and Bart. John's paper was wadded tightly in his hand and his head was on his desk. Bart stared blankly at me with wide, inquisitive eyes. I could feel their inner cries for help and moved quickly to render aid. John's distress seemed more demanding, so I asked Bart to begin on a picture. John had tried to fold his paper, but had done it wrong and was frustrated by his mistake. No attempt to show him how could jar him into action. 'You do it for me,' he finally cried.

By the time I got to Bart, the class was getting restless, and my first inclination was to fold his paper for him and get on with things. He could learn another day. 'No,' he stopped me. 'Show me how.' Then I noticed his name wasn't on his paper. 'Show me how to write my name, too,' he pleaded. I knelt beside him and said softly, 'Okay, make a 'B'.' His eyes grew wider. 'How do you make a 'B'?' he asked, unashamed.

I was a new teacher and that was a long first week. During the first three months of school those two boys needed more help than the other children, but there was a major difference in the way each responded to his mistakes. John continued to feel diminished by every error and could concentrate only on his failures. By staring at the stack of wadded-up paper on his desk, he could not visualize success. Bart, on the other hand, thrived on learning from each mistake and even taped the best printing of his name on his desk each week so he could mark his progress.

It's interesting to note that at first the ability of both boys was similar, but by the end of the school year, Bart was surprising everyone. Both John and Bart began the school year a bit less able than the other children, at least in their most measurable preparation. Yet one boy was able to see beyond his inadequacies and move forward while the other was not.

Like my two students, we often feel inadequate, especially with the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. It is not out of the ordinary to feel this way when we are reaching up and stretching to climb higher. It is reassuring, however, that we are all afraid of failure. It is a common denominator among us. Our true test is how we embrace that fear. I like Emerson's approach: 'They can conquer who believe they can…He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.'

Yet what of our attempts that are not successful? How do we view them? Albert Einstein has said: 'I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.' He may have been a genius, but the theory of relativity didn't just pop into his mind one night at Hogi Yogi. Nor did Marie and Pierre Curie unlock the secret of radium isolation while watching reruns of Star Trek.

As Elder Neal A. Maxwell states, 'God does not begin by asking us about our ability, but only about our availability, and if we then prove our dependability, he will increase our capability!' ('It's Service, Not Status, That Counts,' Ensign, July 1975, p. 7).

Does this mean, however, that a willing heart guarantees immediate success? Usually the road to victory involves encountering a great many mistakes. The Lord wants us to learn from our mistakes because that is how we become strong. He does not expect us to be perfect, just to keep trying. Hasn't he told us, 'I give unto men weakness that they may be humble;…for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.'

That is why every 24 hours our Father in Heaven gives us a brand- new day—a chance to correct yesterday's mistakes. We just get another chance to keep on trying. When we attempt anything new, it is easy to feel discouraged. No one is alone in that regard. Initial fallure, or a less- than-desirable result, is the price we pay for learning anything new.

Sometimes we compare ourselves with others who are more experienced or whom we perceive as being more gifted. At such times we want to give up, forgetting the process of progress and the road to perfection.

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, spoke the following concerning her frame of mind during the writing of her famous novel:

'It was going along pretty well until somebody sent me a new book called John Brown's Body, by Stephen Vincent Benet. When I finished reading that magnificent Civil War epic, I burst into tears and put my own manuscript away on a closet shelf. John Brown's Body gave me such a terrible case of the humbles that it was months before I could find the necessary faith in myself and my book to go on.'

Momentarily, Margaret Mitchell doubted herself too much to go on. As William Shakespeare put it, 'Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt.'

My student John saw his crumpled-up paper and visualized failure. He didn't even want to try. But Bart taped his name to his desk and kept his eye on how it would look when written correctly and then marked his progress.

Our Savior is the perfect image for us to visualize as we strive to be successful. We need to tape his image on the pages of our lives so that we may visualize his perfect life as we left ourselves up from our failures. That we may mark our progress as we learn from our mistakes is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

Sister Janet Lee - BYU Devotional—Sept. 14, 1993


Over this coming year, every one of you is going to experience some disappointments and some setbacks. Some of them will be rather profound and laden with sorrow, but we can learn and grow from these sorrow-laden experiences if we will resolve to do so.

We can learn not only from our mistakes but also from a willingness to attempt something at which we are not particularly skilled or experienced.

The experience of missionaries learning a new language is familiar to so many of us. One of the most valuable attributes for a new missionary or anyone else attempting to learn a second language is a simple willingness to do his or her best even when the inevitable consequence, at least for the first few months, will be a form of communication that ranges all the way from the incomprehensible to the embarrassing.

One of my companions learned very quickly and very effectively the difference between the Spanish phrases yo sé and yo soy. What he meant to say to our investigator family was, "Yo sé que José Smith es un profeta de Dios." "I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God." The words he in fact pronounced with great confidence were, "Yo soy José Smith, un profeta de Dios." After the cottage meeting I informed him that he had testified he was Joseph Smith. The members of the family that we were visiting were very impressed.

Earlier in my mission I had made an even worse mistake when I attempted to apologize to a young woman for having embarrassed her. After the meeting my companion told me what I had in fact said, and I assure you I will never forget that the Spanish word for "embarrassed" is not embarazada, which means "pregnant." We can learn not only from our mistakes, but also from activities that might carry the risk of mistakes. Both are wrapped up in the same package with opportunities for learning, growth, and improvement.

(But beware of a) particular kind of mistake called transgression. In this context also we can learn from our errors. But the difference is that when the error fits in the category of transgression, we should not deliberately make mistakes—or even enter into circumstances or activities likely to lead to mistakes—because of opportunities to learn and grow from them.

I would like to recount for you what I learned 20 years ago from one of my great heroes and role models, Harold B. Lee. On Sept. 11, 1973, following the last devotional address he ever gave at this university and about 3 months before his untimely death, President Lee gathered together a group of BYU administrators and talked to us for about an hour regarding some of the principles of leadership he had learned over the course of his life. He did this by telling us about a dozen stories. The stores fascinated me, as did the conclusions he drew from them. It wasn't until a couple of days later that Elder Oaks, then president of the university, pointed out something I had not realized: Every one of President Lee's stories revolved around a mistake he had made at some phase of his life. Let me tell you the one example I remember best.

As many of you may know, President Lee was a great admirer of President J. Reuben Clark. Prior to being called as a General Authority, Brother Lee served as managing director of the Church welfare program. He told us how frustrated he had become while serving in his welfare position because of a lack of cooperation by employees in another Church office. Shortly after his call as a member of the Council of the Twelve, he said to his mentor, President Clark, "Now that I am one of the Twelve, do you suppose I can get some response from those people in such and such an office?"

President Clark's response, as President Lee reported it that day, was, "Yes, my boy, now that you hold the whip hand, there is a great temptation to use it. But you must never do that."

For me that story bore a powerful message about respect for the use of power and the mistakes that can be made in its misuse. Perhaps even more important, the entire collection of stories that President Lee reviewed illustrate the powerful potential for the sons and daughters of God—be they prophets ancient or modern or visiting teachers or anyone else—to learn and grow and assist others to learn and grow from the mistakes that are the inevitable consequences of life on this planet.

Will each of you resolve with me this morning that whether large or small, when those mistakes are made, when those setbacks occur, you will prove yourself to be greater than they, that you will weather the storm, take your lumps, shed your tears, even say a few "if onlys," if that helps and pick yourself up and ask, "Now what have I learned from this, and how can I come out of this particular windstorm a better and stronger person because I've had to go through it?"

And I, in turn, will give you a promise that you will come out of it a greater, wiser, and better person. I do so in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

President Rex Lee