Monday, September 21, 2015

why we make mistakes

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Image from leadershipfreak.wordpress.com
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.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

true or false

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At present, there are two political campaigns happening in North America. The posturing for popularity mixed with defaming propaganda wears on my soul. As people and parties vie for power, so little of it feels genuine or honest. Despite their designation as public servants, government officials seem to have lost their way when it comes to knowing what it means to truly serve others.

In light of the times we live in, it seemed particularly fitting that we talked about the prohibition against "bearing false witness against your neighbour" this Sunday. People tend to associate the ninth matter in the Decalogue with lying, but it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, what is a witness? In its most basic form, witnessing is a passive role; we see and hear and observe a lot of things throughout the day, most of which we have no control over. However, being a witness is brought into an active, intentional role when we say something about what we have observed, or when we give a report of something that happened.

A further intensifying of this active role as a witness has to do with calling. The Greek word for witness is martus, and though we commonly associate it with the idea of being a martyr (dying for what you believe), it really means to bear witness to something with your whole existence, with your whole life, even up to the point of death. In Acts 1, Jesus calls his disciples to be his witnesses (martyres) beginning with their local setting and radiating out to different parts of the world. The idea of being a witness here is different from a single act of witnessing; this calling is to live as a witness, to have it be your identity. The disciples were not only to speak about what they had seen and experienced with Jesus, but their very lives were to be witnesses to the transforming power of God. It was essentially saying: "If you want to see what the love of God looks like, look at my life. It is a witness to this great love."

That's the positive side of being a witness, so what does it mean when we read the following in Exodus 20:16: "Do not bear false witness against your neighbour?" Is it really always harmful to tell a lie about something? Take, for example, these lies children and parents tell each other.
1. We woke up one morning to a clogged toilet. When my husband asked if anyone knew what happened, my 5-year-old hugged my legs and said, "Mommy, a bad, bad man came into our house last night and stole an apple and took some bites, then flushed it down the toilet!"
2. My dad told me people only get 10,000 words per month. If you reach the limit, you can't physically speak until the new month begins. Anytime I was especially talkative, dad would say, "Careful, you're over 9,000 by now."
3. I told my kids that when they lie, a blue dot appears on their forehead that only Mom and Dad can see. Every time they lied, for almost a year, they covered their foreheads.

Perhaps a stronger example is the story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab admired Naboth's vineyard and wanted to buy it for his own personal use because it was nice and close to the palace. However, Naboth respectfully declined the purchase offer, stating that the vineyard had been in his family for generations. The king went home and sulked. Jezebel, his wife, took notice, and told him to cheer up; she would get him that vineyard. Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name proclaiming a public day of fasting, and on that day, when Naboth was in a prominent, public place, two men of bad reputation (under orders of Jezebel) accused Naboth of cursing both God and the king. Because two witnesses brought testimony against him (the requisite number), he was found guilty and dragged outside the city and stoned to death. Ahab then claimed Naboth's vineyard.

So why do people give a false witness against someone? The 5-year-old wanted to get out of trouble. The parents wanted to control the behaviour of their children. In the story of Ahab, it was for personal gain and perhaps to exact revenge on Naboth for not giving in to the king's demand. Other reasons for telling an untruth about someone could be to elevate our own standing, or to remove an opponent, or to make a tricky situation go away by creating a scapegoat. (see Mark 14 which tells about the false witnesses who were called to testify against Jesus).

What happens when we bear false witness against someone? Note that I am using Jesus' all-encompassing interpretation of 'neighbour' here (see Luke 10:25-37). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that false statements contribute to condemnation of the innocent and exoneration of the guilty. When we partake in calumny (a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation) we violate both the commandment against false witness as well as the command to love one's neighbour as oneself. The Catechism goes so far as to indicate that gossip, slander, flattery, boasting, bragging, irony aimed at disparaging someone, mocking, and maliciously caricaturing someone are all contained under the prohibition against "bearing false witness" (again reminded of political campaigns here, God have mercy).

Some theologians make a connection between the 8th matter (do not steal) and the prohibition against bearing false witness. Matthew Henry states that acting as a false witness is "endeavoring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbor's." Martin Luther wrote: "God wishes the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished as little as his money and possessions." In other words, by denigrating someone, we are stealing their good name and their reputation from them. This is a dangerous position to be in, because lying and stealing are the main activities associated with Satan (called the father of lies and the thief who comes to steal, slaughter, and destroy). In contrast, Jesus says that he comes to give life characterised by joy and abundance (John 10). The Hebrew name for God, El Emet (God of truth), reveals that truth is central to God's character. When we malign someone with our words, in essence stealing their reputation, we have joined the ranks of Satan, the one who desires to pull people down into ruin. Instead, we want to be followers of Jesus, the one who desires to lift people up and help them to flourish.

So why should we tell the truth about everyone? Because we want to align ourselves with God who is truth instead of Satan who is a liar. Because as recipients of God's justice and mercy, we now want to extend justice and mercy. Because we want to love our neighbour, not be in competition with them. Because we want to care more about God's gain and God's reputation than our own.

"By truth spoken in love, we are to grow in every way into Him - the Anointed One. ... Don't let even one rotten word seep out of your mouths. Instead, offer only fresh words that build others up when they need it most. That way your good words will communicate grace to those who hear them. It's time to stop bringing grief to God's Holy Spirit; ... Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts - these are poison. Instead, be kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through the Anointed, our Liberating King." (Ephesians 4, The Voice)

Anne Lamott recounts this story: "I think often of the weeks after the end of WWII, in the refugee camps for orphans and dislocated kids. Of course the children couldn't sleep! But the grown-ups discovered that after you fed them, if you gave them each a piece of bread just to hold, they would drift off, it was holding bread. There was more to eat if they were still hungry. This was bread to hold, to remind them and connect them to the great truth - that morning would come, that there were grown-ups who cared and were watching over them, that there would be more food when they awoke. ... We are each other's holding bread."

Let our words and our witness be bread for a hungry world.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

learning to say THANK YOU

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Image from theguardian.com
September is here and school is about to start for another year. This term I will be working as both a teaching assistant and a research assistant in addition to finishing (fingers crossed) my doctoral dissertation (except for final rewrites). Some people have remarked that going from teaching a course at the university to being a teaching assistant seems like a step backwards. I don't see it that way. Every chance to be in the classroom is an opportunity to participate in another learning experience, a privilege I do not take for granted. Being a TA is a gift, actually: the professor does all the heavy lifting and takes ultimate responsibility for what happens in the course while I get to enjoy theological discussions and reading materials, grade (mostly) interesting assignments, answer questions from students, and exchange theological jokes with my fellow TA during class. No down side!

Seriously, though, I have found that being a student and a life-long learner means swallowing ones pride and sense of entitlement. When I spent a year in the Theatre Department, all of the students were very talented and bright, all were more educated and experienced in theatre than I was, and they all knew each other. Also, due to a bad experience with another doctoral student, one of my professors was unsure about me and how I would fit into her class. Yep, I was a bit nervous that first day, but, as you quickly learn in the theatrical context, you have to jump in and participate or you won't get anything out of it, so I did. I loved my theatre classes and found them to be places of mutual support and encouragement.

This summer I attended a session at a conference hosted by the Association of Theatre in Higher Education. There were no lectures in this particular session: all the chairs were pushed aside and we moved around the room in various directed exercises: individually, in pairs, and as a group. We got some things right and we got some things wrong, but we learned as we went. At the end, the facilitators, who mostly work in corporate and education settings, remarked on how willing and responsive everyone was and how we all "got" the exercises quickly. even the challenge of working together as one unit.

One of the things that was said in that workshop was that we need to learn to fail joyfully and with gratitude. We did an exercise where one person offered a gesture to the other. Instead of acting on it, the second person would simply take a moment to observe it, then return the first person to neutral position. The one who offered the gesture was directed to say, "Thank you," to the other for considering their offer even though they did not take action on it. In actual practice, both the givers and the spectators in several groups (including mine) ended up saying, "Thank you," to each other because we forgot who was meant to be thanking whom. Gratitude was everywhere! It was good practice to get used to offering something without assuming it would be acted upon, and to be not only okay with that, but grateful for the opportunity. It also reminded me that it is important to take the time to look and listen to someones offer/idea, giving them the dignity of being heard and seen, even if their idea may ultimately be rejected. The repeated utterances of "Thank you" around the room showed us how quickly an atmosphere of joy and camaraderie can be created by gratitude.

Another thing I learned, especially in my Playwriting class, is that the creative process is going to be longer than we think it should be, so we need to practice patience and diligence. Rewrites and edits and more rewrites are necessary if the characters and the work are to have real depth. and that doesn't happen overnight. Writers need to hear others speak their words in order to know if they ring true. When I saw my characters interact in the flesh, I was immediately able to pinpoint where my story was false, where it was overly simplistic or too complex, where it did not progress naturally, and where it was awkward and unrealistic. Don't get discouraged by the rewrites, our professor told us; trust the process to do its work. And to that I would add, enjoy the creative journey, rejoice in the failures and the roadblocks and the victories, because all of them are part of bringing something new to life.

For the past five months or so, I have sat in my office and pecked away at a keyboard, writing word after word and chapter after chapter of my doctoral dissertation. I try to find joy in the task everyday (some days it takes me longer to get to joy, I must admit), I try to be grateful every day for the unique opportunity given to me to study theology and theatre, and I try to be patient with the process, trusting that the thoughts and the ideas and the words will come. I try never to be discouraged for long, but to keep going back to the work, even if it means deleting most of the words I wrote yesterday. What I am discovering is that both theology and theatre put us in situations where we are expected to take huge risks and to be okay with making mistakes. Instead of being discouraged by our failures and shortcomings, we are to learn from them, to find joy hidden within them, and then get right back in there and try again.

Let today be another day when I jump in and risk, when I get better at navigating the tricky waters of progress and growth, and when all the ups and downs of work and life and love lead me to say, "Thank you."