Learning from My Mistakes: A Surprising Lesson

handyman-s-creed-measure-twice-cut-once-swear-repeatedlyIf we learn from our mistakes, then I’m working on my third PhD. The last month has been a rush for me. I host this annual Christmas party, and my Knower/Judger usually gets me into some kind of project that just has to be completed before the first guest arrives. And they’re usually not small projects. This year, I did it again. The difference is, I finally learned something.

About 15 years ago, we decided to redecorate the main floor of our 100-year-old house—the dining room, living room, and front hallway, with a staircase up to the second floor. We started in October with the expectation (see a problem here?) of completion by our party on December 12. Expectation. The foundation of frustration!

This is the stuff my Knower/Judger loves! Crisis! Pressure! See? We build these things in. I didn’t know as much about myself 15 years ago as I do now.

A week before the party, my long-suffering wife, Margaret, was sitting cross-legged on the bare pine floor (carpet had not yet arrived) sobbing into the phone (I was at a client’s, out of state) that the pile of oak parts that used to be our staircase was not all there.

Burning the midnight oil and bonding as a couple, we completed everything minutes before the first guest arrived (and I answered the door with a wrench in one pocket and pliers in the other, having just finished one last task).

The following year, it was the kitchen. Same deal. We started in October. A blizzard meant that there was a piece of 5/8-inch plywood where a real countertop would have been, but other than that we pulled it off again.

Last year, it was a major room addition. Contractors put us behind, so our party was a “soft opening” for the addition…but it was well received.

Which brings us to this year. Christmas 2013. The Man Cave!

Under the new addition was a nice, new concrete basement. I had plans for that. And here’s where my “learning from mistakes” took off!

I had help with framing, drywalling, and putting down flooring, but everything else was done by me on my deadline. Electric. Plumbing. Wainscoting. Hardwood trim. Lighting. Suspended ceiling. Bar design and execution. Half bath. All me. I can do it!

Unfortunately for Margaret, she was the designated painter/stainer. We started Labor Day. (A little early for us!) Then we took two weeks off on the East Coast, which put us a tad behind.

Now the learning part. Here’s a list of things I’ve never done before:

Wired a whole room for lighting. Dimmed LED lighting.

Installed a suspended ceiling—and made it level.

Mitered dozens of pieces of chair rail and baseboard.

Discovered that poured basement floors are not designed level.

The list goes on.

Every part of this project reminded me of my golf game. I can get very upset when I don’t meet my golf shot expectations. My 90-year-old mom, visiting for family dinner one Sunday evening, heard words emanating from the basement that she’d never heard me say before!

Finally, I realized that the execution of this entire man cave project was coming from my K/J. I constantly judged myself for the mistakes I made: the multiple cuts I had to make, the re-wiring I had to do, having to cut off the top of all the wainscoting because I based it all on a floor I assumed was level. (My K/J can hear you chuckling even now!)

If I were to do a time assessment of my work on this project, I’d estimate my K/J used up about 30% of my available time simply because it created my reality. I just knew I was gonna screw that up. See? I was right! Just like my golf shots. “Damn! I knew that was gonna happen!”

What area of your life does your K/J rule? When does it tell you “You’re going to screw this up”…and you do? Do you learn anything? Me neither. Know why? I’ve discovered I can’t learn anything when I’m in my K/J. My K/J is vested in being correct that I’m incorrect! So it’s fine suffering with mistake after mistake because that justifies its own dysfunction.

The concept that we learn from our mistakes really requires me to be in my Learner/Researcher.

So here’s how I eventually curbed the problem: Eckhart Tolle’s three responses. No matter how stupid the mistake was (and I made some doozies!) I eventually learned to limit myself to one of three responses. I accepted it. I enjoyed it passively and proceeded. Or I engaged in it enthusiastically. When I did that I learned a lot.

The party was last Saturday. The Man Cave was not finished. But what’s there is pretty neat, and those in it Saturday evening joined me in engaging enthusiastically.

Lesson? My being in my K/J, a comfortable yet dysfunctional position, cost me time and money. Only by committing myself to dropping the expectation of mistakes did the project move forward. I often say “make room for the miracle,” and unfinished or finished, my new Man Cave is quite the miracle. And I’ve got another 364 days to finish it up before next year’s party!

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