On Saturday, on I65 from Alabama, I started to pass a car. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the car coming up on my left. I have an older car with no blind spot detector. I swerved back into my lane but was going so fast that I thought that I was going to lose control and plunge off the side of the road or that my car was going to flip over. Luckily, I managed to gain control and proceeded home, going a little more slowly and checking at least three times before passing any other cars.
I admit to being pretty shaken up. I could have wrecked my car, hurt or killed myself, and/or hurt or killed some other innocent motorists on the road. But once my heart rate neared normal, I took a moment to be thankful and grateful that none of those things happened.
We tend to remember the bad things that occur: the wrecks, the scary diagnoses, and the heartbreaks when lovers or friends desert us. And that makes sense. But it makes as much sense to take a moment and just be happy on those days when the wrecks don’t happen, the checkups are normal, and lovers and friends just make us laugh.
In general, I am not a Pollyanna. I don’t think life is always good; horrendous things do happen. And I generally don’t like to say that God was watching over me since that seems to imply that He was not watching over those who do suffer misfortune. But I just think it makes sense to celebrate those little days when the darkness passes us by.
According to Mark Goulston, the author of Get Out of Your Own Way, most of us learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, many of us learn the wrong thing. He gives the example of a young lawyer who was completely embarrassed in her first trial. The lesson she learned: that she was not cut out to be a lawyer. Goulston argues that a better lesson might have been to look for mistakes in her preparation and fix them. He also cites unfaithful spouses who seem to learn only how not to get caught next time.
Coaches and teachers tell us we all make mistakes and the only bad thing is not learning from them, but most of us don’t like to make mistakes. I’ve known people whose identity is so tied up in being right that you can present proof of an error right in from of them and they’ll still deny the mistake was theirs. Hey, I’ve been that person, although I have to admit that age and the sheer number of mistakes I make on a daily basis helped me get over that particular problem.
But I still face the issue of learning the right thing from my mistake. I have a tendency to beat myself up, which doesn’t help me learn how to improve my situation but does allow me to wallow in self-pity for days on end. I also tend to ruminate on my mistakes, remembering them and feeling a special rush of shame for each one.
There is no simple rule about what to learn from a mistake. But I think a good guideline is something like this: If you want to hide from the world, blame other people, or hate yourself, you’re not learning the right thing.
Each year, I think about what I would say to graduates if I’m ever asked to speak at commencement. Since this is unlikely, I will take advantage of my blog to do so.
My message to graduates has four points this year:
One. Do not complain without taking action. There are enough complainers in the world. I am one of them. This week, I have complained about the weather, meetings, lack of sleep, and bad traffic. And that doesn’t include the things going on nationally and internationally. We all like to complain. But here’s the thing. Complaining is a sneaky devil. It makes us feel like we are accomplishing something when in fact we’re not. If I complain and then go out and do something to make my life or the lives of others better, that’s one thing. But for many of us, complaining takes the place of action.
Two. Always be ready to make a new beginning. Many of you are ready to go on to the workplace, ready to start the career you’ve been studying so hard for. But what if in a couple of years you realize that this is not what you were meant to do? What if it sucks out your soul everyday? What if you find that you’re being asked to do something that doesn’t make the world better, but actually worse? I tell you exactly what you do. You start again. You find another job. You go back to school. As the old saying goes, you are not a plant. You do not have to stay where you are. Gather your resources and get out there.
Three. Be a force for good. There’s so much nastiness in the world. (We like to pretend that it’s worse today than at any other time in history. I’m not sure that’s true, but what is true is that if you’re a nasty person, you can spew venom across the world in a blink of an eye.) But here’s the hopeful part. If you can post anger and hatred, you can also post reconciliation and love. If we all did that, the hatemongers wouldn’t stand a chance.
Four. Laugh at yourself at least once a day. Notice: not at others. Yourself. Your own foibles will be more than enough to keep you entertained throughout your lifetime.