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Making Mistakes as Spiritual Practice

October 3, 2011

My friend Howard recently completed a major feat: running a half-marathon, which is an impressive 13.1 miles.

As a formerly overweight kid in high school who could barely manage to jog a mile without collapsing, this was a huge accomplishment and major milestone in Howard’s spiritual and personal growth journey.

But I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard that for the entire ten weeks leading up to this historic event, Howard’s pedometer had miscalculated the number of miles he was training. He thought he had built up to a regimen of thirteen miles, but in reality, he was only running eleven. The pedometer was off by two miles.

Only he didn’t find out until he was actually running the race.

So, picture it: there’s Howard at the starting line, all jittery and excited to finally be running with the big boys at his very first official race, this insane event that will drive his body beyond anything he has ever imagined possible, and the starting gun goes off.

Howard pushes off the pavement, merging with the massive crowd of elbows and sweat and pounding feet. He keeps the confidence up with positive self-talk, telling himself how he has trained properly, he knows how to pace himself, he is prepared, he utilized the correct technology.

After a few minutes, Howard checks his trusty pedometer. Great! First mile down, just as he suspected. Except, where is the first mile marker? He looks up the road ahead, to his left, his right.

Where is it?

Where? Where? Where????

An excruciating two-tenths of a mile later, he finally sees the first mile marker. It is not synching up with what his pedometer says. And it dawns on Howard: he hasn’t trained properly at all.

He does a quick calculation in his head: .2 miles x 13 miles = 2.6 extra miles. He has never actually run 13 miles in his life!

So, here is what we might call a Defining Moment.

Howard could have panicked, shut down, and puked all over the side of the road.

He could have said “forget it,” blamed the technology and bashed his lousy pedometer to smithereens on the pavement.

He could have told himself he was really an incompetent idiot who didn’t deserve to run the race with all those other well-trained, better-looking, and legitimate runners.

He could have rationalized the miscalculation as an excuse to give up.

But he didn’t do any of these things.

Instead, he finished the race. He kept running with the not-so-comfortable knowledge that he would have to suck it up and do the two extra miles, even though he was not fully prepared. Even if it would hurt a little bit. Or a lot. He made the decision go with it, to do his best with what he had to work with, and finish the race.

There are so many metaphors layered into this little story, I don’t even know where to begin.

Look, we all make mistakes. Or we find ourselves in the middle of difficult situations, in spite of our best intentions.

The projector goes on the fritz during the most important presentation of your life.

You overlook that one important detail.

Someone else gets credit for your work.

You forget to bring the documents that everyone was counting on.

But that doesn’t mean that you pack up and go home. Instead, you reach down deep inside to a place you didn’t even know existed, and you find the strength to deal with it, to keep going, to fix it.

This, of all places, is where you are most likely to meet God in the midst of your work.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2011 4:32 am

    Sometimes, winging it is the best teacher. No, I take that back, Winging it when you have no other choice is often the best teacher, because we learn a lot about ourselves, our capabilities and our limitations. Howard could have quit, but he chose to go on – and that taught him a lot about himself. Great post, Brad.

  2. October 3, 2011 6:01 am

    Howard made me laugh. I have screwed up so many times — and will continue to. But my boss has kind of embraced it. To love me is to love my screw ups… Or something like that.

  3. October 3, 2011 7:09 am

    Many years ago I ran in the Great North Run in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. It is a half marathon too. When I was training I was advised to run a maximum of 10 miles in my training runs. If I could do that easily, then I’d have no trouble with the full distance.

    Come the day and all went well until I passed the 11 mile marker. I kept going, looking for the 12 mile marker, which seemed to be an age coming! Eventually I spotted the 13 mile marker, raised my head, my spirits and my knees, and sprinted the final 187.5 yards.

    As for making mistakes – how else do we ever learn anything? We either learn from the mistakes of others, or we learn from our own.

  4. October 3, 2011 8:09 am

    Seeing failure as space to meet God. Good thought. Great storytelling, too.

  5. October 3, 2011 9:37 am

    Loved that moment of revelation. Made me laugh 🙂

    (somehow this also reminds me of my Mindful post today… Langer’s quote about when we find our reserves).

    And speaking of reserves, I found a few this weekend, especially from friends and car buddies 🙂

  6. October 3, 2011 1:06 pm

    good post, coach.

  7. October 3, 2011 2:19 pm

    OH. My. I can’t imagine. (as a runner)

    But I loved this story, so much. You summed up the purpose in this so well. Thanks!

  8. October 4, 2011 8:58 am

    That is just flat-out funny! Thanks for the laugh!

    As for the lesson, excellent! I know exactly the feelings going through his mind and body while he was madly calculating his error margin…a sick feeling. At the same time, as you mentioned, this is where true learning takes place – learning about ourselves, our God, our guts, etc.

    Thanks for another great post! I am enjoying the learning from this blog!

  9. October 4, 2011 1:47 pm

    A laugh returned! Agreed too. The reason why my batteries keep going and going. Not giving up…wish I could find energy to run, I have a few pounds I need to shed. Funny how twenty years ago some of us naturally shed things, but after 40 we need a bigger push…maybe reading this is a push I need…

  10. October 4, 2011 4:31 pm

    I bet that he felt an even greater sense of accomplishment at the finish line. Sometimes the course doesn’t go the way we think it will, but just put one foot in front of the other and hold on!

  11. October 5, 2011 12:59 pm

    Funny, this is just like making partner. You think it’s 7 years, then it’s 8, 9 ……..But at that point, who wants to give up?

  12. October 5, 2011 3:53 pm

    “He could have said “forget it,” blamed the technology and bashed [it] to smithereens on the pavement.”

    Yeah. I feel like that sometimes. Sometimes I throw up anyway. But we keep running. We keep at it. We keep innovating and iterating no matter how slow. We are going to finish this.

    That’s what I tell myself.

  13. October 5, 2011 10:28 pm

    Oh to hear the “well done” words.

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