The Wisdom of Learning from Our Mistakes

By Harold W. Anderson, M.A., M.Div., Ph.D., LMFT

When you have lived 70 years, you would think you would have learned something.  Life experiences are great teachers, but you must be strong enough and willing to listen to them as teachers.  This is not easy.  The problem is, we all want to be right.  We might live a humble life.  We might even make a practice of putting the needs of others before our own.  Empathy may be our path to self-reflection, but when we think we have it figured out, when we think that we are on the right path, it is difficult to hear that we have made a mistake, that somehow what we think is right may be wrong.  Still, after 70 years, life’s teachers should have taught those living that long something.  What is the wisdom that hides beneath the fabric of long life?

There are a lot of extenuating circumstances behind which wisdom often hides.  For those favored in life, wisdom often hides behind the desire for success.  For those who may be less favored, wisdom often hides behind the drive to survive.  Whether the end is success or survival, the process is often the same.  If we desire success strongly enough, we will let nothing stand between us and our success.  If survival is our desire, we do whatever it takes to stay alive.  Nothing or no one is allowed to interfere with our goal.  Win or live at any cost all too often becomes our motto.  In what is to follow, I wish to discuss two different mindsets: The first I call an “end-justifies-the-means” filter and I wish to contrast it with the second filter that I call the “means-justifies-the-end” filter.  The former is a filter that creates an autocratic environment from which we cannot learn from our mistakes while the latter creates an environment of learning where the mistakes of life often become our best teachers.  A “means-justifies-the-end” filter, I contend, is the one in which democracy thrives and it is here, as opposed to an end-justifies-the-means mentality, that wisdom resides.

Whatever a team or player can do to gain a competitive edge, even if it borders on being illegal, might be done to achieve the goal of winning.  In this regard, Al Davis used to say, “Just win baby!” and UCLA Bruins head coach, Henry Russell Sanders is reported to have said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  Winning is everything and losing is nothing so do whatever it takes to assure a win.  Here, the end often justifies the means.

The end-justifies-the-means filter is a win at all cost scenario where mistakes are rationalized away because anything is permissible if it achieves the end we desire.  From an ethical perspective, this filter is normally considered questionable leading to unethical behaviors and ideas whose value are defined by the end they serve.  Here, accountability is defined only by the end not by behaviors.  In this scenario, the end defines that which is good and since one believes they must attain the end to be good, any means necessary is justified.  Let’s take an example.  It is football season and football teams are gearing up to achieve their goal of being number one, winning the championship at the end of the season.  There have been numerous examples of success at any cost in collegiate as well as professional football teams ranging from unfair recruiting practices to allowing football players to play even though their grades are not high enough and doing whatever is necessary to obtain information about the opposition to find a competitive edge.  Whatever a team or player can do to gain a competitive edge, even if it borders on being illegal, might be done to achieve the goal of winning.  In this regard, Al Davis used to say, “Just win baby!” and UCLA Bruins head coach, Henry Russell Sanders is reported to have said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  Winning is everything and losing is nothing so do whatever it takes to assure a win.  Here, the end often justifies the means.

When the end-justifies-the-means becomes the mindset through which failure is filtered, then losing a game may not teach team members to become a better player or tams a better team.  It means learning how to cheat without getting caught.  Because cheating ruins the game, however, rules and governing bodies are established to prevent it.  Using suspension, fines and other regulatory means, the governing bodies of football try to prevent an end-justifies-the-means mentality by using severe penalties meant to prevent the crime.

Governing bodies believe that there is a better filter through which life’s lessons of failure and mistakes should be filtered.  It is the means-justifies-the-ends filter.  This works much differently.  It suggests that when we make a mistake or lose in competitive events, rather than trying to find more cunning ways to win, we look at ourselves or our team in an effort to make ourselves or our team better.  This filter allows life experiences and failures to become a teacher.  Let me put football behind and draw upon my experience as a college professor to illustrate my point.

When one is a student, the end-justifies-the-means filter is extremely problematic.  This filter justifies cheating on exams, lying about completing assignments, and doing whatever is necessary to preempt the difficult work of study.  I remember three young men who were in one of my philosophy courses.  One of the requirements was to write a ten-page research paper.  For many students, this is an opportunity to dig into the subject matter and develop a better knowledge of the issues.  More than that, however, the diligence by which they tackle the task not only produces a good paper, but it helps them become a better person.  If they work hard on the project, even if they get a lower grade than they may have wanted (a B instead of an A), there is a sense of completion and accomplishment that bolsters their character and helps prepare them for other challenges in life.  If they do not get the grade they wanted and had put in a good effort, I always worked with them to help them improve their grade.

These three young men, however, had an end-justifies-the-means filter rather than the means-justifies-the-end filter and I don’t know if they purchased a paper, or if they wrote it together, but the papers they handed in were identical.  They didn’t want to do the assignment, allowed the end-justifies-the-means filter to govern their behaviors, and cheated.  The funny thing, however, is they piled the identical papers on top of one another.  When I read the first, one, I graded it accordingly.  I think I gave it a B-.  However, when I picked up the next student’s paper, it was identical.  Hmmm…something is fishy and when I picked up the next paper and it was identical, I knew they had not done the work.  I took the original grade and divided it by 3.  Instead of an 81, each received a 27, which was not passing.  Because the end-justifies-the-means was their filter, they failed the class and if that filter remained intact, it is doubtful they learned from their mistake. Instead of doing the work, they might have realized they needed to stagger their papers and looked for another class in which they could cheat and get a passing grade.  When end-justifies-the-means is your filter, you learn nothing, but when the means-justifies-the-end, we not only learn the subject matter, but we also learn how to become a better student and a better person, lessons that serve us well for the remainder of our lives.

As I look at our country today and the divisiveness that characterizes it, I am amazed by how many of our leaders, whether political, religious, corporate, etc., advocate an end-justifies-the-means filter.  In this scenario, reason is replaced by loyalty, love becomes an expression of brute power, facts are erased or transformed by belief, and the tether tying truth to reasoned processes is severed so that truth serves only the end for which groups and individuals so fervently yearn.  Such an environment not only lacks character, but because it is without character, it is incorrigible.  People learn nothing from the mistakes and failures of life for such are erased by the end itself.  In this world, wisdom hides behind words devoid of meaning for words are no longer a means to discovery but are tools whose meanings shift as they are put in service of the end.  When wisdom hides behind the meaningless drift of terms filtered through an end-justifies-the-means filter, discourse becomes bombastic warfare and civility gives way to autocracy, the end of democracy.

The end of something, Aristotle argued, was that thing’s purpose.  The end of a seed is to produce a plant; the end of an acorn is to produce a tree.  Much of this is straightforward, but when it comes to more complex things such as human beings, ends become slightly more difficult to determine.  What is the purpose of a human being?  For Aristotle, the purpose or end of a human being is to flourish.

My fear is that we have created an incorrigible social structure incapable of learning from mistakes for mistakes cannot be acknowledged when regulated by an end that justifies how it is attained.  Why?  Let’s take a closer look at what an end signifies.   In philosophy, teleology is the study of ends popularized by Aristotle.  The end of something, Aristotle argued, was that thing’s purpose.  The end of a seed is to produce a plant; the end of an acorn is to produce a tree.  Much of this is straightforward, but when it comes to more complex things such as human beings, ends become slightly more difficult to determine.  What is the purpose of a human being?  For Aristotle, the purpose or end of a human being is to flourish.  Certainly, volumes have been filled trying to determine what it means for a human being to flourish.  We will not rehearse that here.  Rather, note that how we understand what it means to be human changes with the end or purpose we associate with it.  If, instead of flourishing, we suggest that the end of being human is work, the nature of being human changes.  While flourishing denote a lifestyle involving heath, success and happiness, work seems somehow to lack these qualities.  If the end of being human is work, then humans are made to toil whether that toil is particularly meaningful or not.  Ends, then, are powerful ideals that determine the nature and purpose of that to which they are attributed.

I may be unpatriotic, but I think such an end-justifies-the-means mentality is an affront to the communal nature of being human.

So, which is it.  Is the purpose of being human flourishing or work and how would we know?  Ends cannot and should not be assumed but are the result of honest exploration.  We begin to understand the end of being human by studying human beings.  Under what conditions do human beings thrive?  What makes a human being happy?  What makes them sad?  How is a human being fulfilled.  What type of social order facilitates the end of being human?

The last question is asked by government and the political structures it defines and here’s where things get interesting.  Are governments and the political interests they inspire ends that facilitate the undertaking of being human?  Or is being a flourishing human the end to which governments and its political ideals serve?  The former is problematic, I would argue, because it makes an artificially manipulated and humanly contrived entity the end that justifies being human rather than a means to becoming more fully human.  When this happens, human beings serve a governmental entity as the ultimate end.  To be human is to be a functionary of the government and the work of being human is to do whatever it takes to perpetuate the governmental end.

I may be unpatriotic, but I think such an end-justifies-the-means mentality is an affront to the communal nature of being human.  When our notion of government is our end, we speak only to those who agree and oppose anyone who does not, a condition that makes discourse as an honest search for truth very difficult.  In these circumstances, wisdom loves to hide for it cannot be revealed through a frank assessment of our mistakes.  The end in this scenario does not change; change is defined only by a conversion to loyalty to the end, i.e., government.  Failure to be loyal is met with discord and alienation.

But what happens when we understand government as a means to the end of becoming more fully human?  In this scenario, governmental structure is governed by the end of being human.  Some, agreeing with Aristotle, might think this is flourishing, or as the founders of our country believed: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Some may argue that it is work and therefore to be truly human is to be one who is willing to work.  Note, however, that the end is being human; what this means is and must be open to debate.  The function of government, then, is to facilitate this debate.  It is a means to an end; it is not the end itself.

I fear that we have lost this in our society today.  Being a Republican or being a Democrat are the ends that dictate how we behave as individuals and there are all types of litmus tests to determine which side we embrace.  If you embrace an anti-abortion ideal, then you are a Republican, but if you embrace a pro-abortion perspective, then you are a Democrat.  If you oppose welfare, you are a Republican; if you embrace it, you are a Democrat.  If you think that our borders should be open to immigrants, you are a Democrat, but if you think they should be closed, you are a Republican.  This could go on and on and most often does, with both sides carefully defining the dogma to which a person’s loyalty must conform if they are to be a Democrat or Republican with the extended qualification that if democracy is to thrive, it will only do so if one’s side wins.

In this scenario, there is no compromise and without the possibility of compromise, there is no discourse and without discourse, there is no admission of mistake and with no admission of mistake, there is no teacher that can direct us into a flourishing future and without a teacher, there is no wisdom upon which we can draw.  And it is here, without wisdom, that I fear we live today.  Our ends are screwed up because we embrace an end-justifies-the-means scenario rather than forming the shape of government to facilitate discourse that aids us in understanding what it means to be more fully human, a determination that is achieved only as we openly and peacefully talk to one another.

In my 70 years, I have met many people with whom I have disagreed, and I have met many with whom I agree.  As a professor, I found that many who agree were, well…a little boring.  Agreement was often without challenge and when I’m not challenged, I will not understand how my thinking may be wrong.  I will not be able to identify my mistakes, and if so, I will not be able to learn.  Wisdom loves to hide when all we do is agree.  However, if those with whom I disagree are willing to discuss with me our differing points of view, then it is interesting how the discussion, not the end of being right, becomes our focus.  The means, in this case, justifies the end of learning how to become more fully informed, become more highly educated, and in so doing, understanding more fully what it means to flourish as a human being.  It is here that wisdom begins to reveal itself.  May over government and the politics it breeds become a means to discourse in which wisdom reveals itself, a revelation that will bring us into discourse with one another as we struggle to identify what it means to be more fully human together.  This, it seems to me, is democracy.

Published by Harold W. Anderson

I am a retired United Methodist Minister working in private practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). I also work in addiction issues and am a Certified Addiction Counselor, level III (CAC III). I also supervise graduate students working on their Master Degrees and supervise Candidates in Training who are working towards licensure. My desire to provide a window of hope to those with whom I work that they live in a world of opportunity.

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