This week is the second part of growing up spiritually, doing the right things. In this episode we deal with why we don't always do the right thing, especially fear of failure.
I also talk about my daughter Abby and how she has taught her dad to "try something new." She's my child without fear, and I am so grateful for what she brings to our lives.
This week's challenge is to do two simple positive things which take 30 seconds or less.
I have enjoyed doing these episodes and I hope you are getting half the encouragement I am from producing them.
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Be good and do good.
So I’ve got this picture of my youngest daughter Abby. The picture is in summer and I remember the day well. She’s a cute 7-year-old at the time. She’s got this big grin and a personality which simply doesn’t quit. And on this day in August, I remember Abby was insistent. Like little girls her age, she really wanted something and she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I say that because her mother and I are the ones who say yes or no. Her plans often become our projects. For those of you with a younger kid, you know the drill. The fourth grade science assignment isn’t really a student project, it’s yours. You’re the one who’s conducting the experiments, you’re the one who’s drawing the poster after you’ve bought the poster board, you’re the one who’s searching for supplies. Most of the things your kid wants to do is a checkbox for you. So Abby’s job for me is a lemonade stand. She knows she has the upper hand. Her mother bought a cardboard lemonade stand at Hobby Lobby on clearance. We have a partial can of powdered lemonade in the pantry. We’ve got a gallon jug and plenty of ice. So on a day my wife and I wanted to sit and do nothing, my daughter thought she would become an entrepreneur. I sat thinking about how to get her to change her mind, because I didn’t want to do it. I sat there thinking, “we’re going to put together this lemonade stand and nobody is going to show. It’s going to take 30-45 minutes to put the stand together, get her set up, make the lemonade, figure out a cash box, find some change, etc. In other words, I knew all the labor going behind the lemonade stand. I could see her getting bored after 10 minutes when nobody showed. So, I tried to tell her she needed to adjust her expectations about how successful she was going to be. Then she pulled out her secret weapon. Cute girl, big grin. After awhile, I resigned myself to the idea. I would be putting together a lemonade stand and teaching some important lessons in small business failure.
So, this was happening. I got off the couch, my wife started making lemonade, I opened the box with the lemonade stand parts, I started figuring out how this flat piece of cardboard would eventually be a stand a little girl could sell instant lemonade to no one. I knew Abby would be bored. I was already looking for where I could store the lemonade stand in the garage in an hour or so. So...this would be another one of those things.
But the picture I’m looking at today isn’t a picture of a sad little girl moping in her lemonade stand. It’s a picture of a grinning girl fanning out about $25 of bills she had gotten over the course of about 90 minutes.
The second part of becoming more spiritually mature is doing the right things. I think one of the biggest challenges we have as Christians is overcoming what we know. I mean, we know how things are going to turn out, don’t we? Most people are going to reject the gospel. Most of our efforts to get better are going to fail. Our history and even God tell us we will meet failure more than success. I mean, I’ve tried reading the Bible in a year and I always lose motivation or I get sidetracked or things don’t go to plan. In other words, because we’ve seen this before, we begin figuring out why things won’t work. If this is doomed to be futile, why get started? And let’s be clear, many times we’re right.
But on this day in August of 2017, I was wrong. We often only see what we want to. This isn’t something we plan nor are we lying to ourselves. We want to be truthful and fair. But our mind is trying to help us out. We fool ourselves without knowing what’s going on. When Abby asked to run the lemonade stand, two things went through my head I probably didn’t really understand. I didn’t want to do the stuff it took to try, and I didn’t want to see my daughter disappointed. And because of those two impulses, my brain conveniently filled in the facts which supported my gut reaction. It reminded me the lemonade wasn’t good. It reminded me the stand was flimsy. It told me this wasn’t a very social neighborhood where neighbors get together. It also reminded me how impulsive Abby can be and that she hadn’t done any research. And none of that is wrong. Those are facts. My brain simply took the things I already knew and arranged them in a way which began to support the conclusion it thought I wanted. It helped me continue down the path of least resistance. Until Abby became a point of larger resistance.
We often underestimate the power of doing something. We can repeat all the cliches about missing the shots we don’t take, missing the opportunities we don’t make, and how luck always favors those who are prepared. And those are true. But my daughter didn’t prepare, she just tried something. And she could have failed. But she didn’t. A bunch of strangers walking past our house bought some terrible lemonade at a dollar a cup from a cute little girl who was trying something.
We also underestimate the power of failure. Actually, it’s probably not even failure we really want to avoid. It’s being seen as a failure or feeling like one. My gut reaction was I didn’t want to invest time and effort into something which wouldn’t work and would make Abby feel bad. We don’t like how we believe failure will make us feel. We often dread this feeling so much, we go to incredible lengths to avoid it. Sometimes we take an episode in our lives and relabel a failure as a success. Or we joke about it. Or we minimize our part. Or, to avoid the feeling of failure again, we analyze more, we strategize more. We enter into the paralysis of analysis where we stay in constant research mode which helps us believe we’re making progress without actually making any progress. And yet, all of us know if you want to truly learn something, you have to fail along the way. We know life isn’t a success only journey. We know failure is a powerful teacher. Yet it’s the one teacher we all try to avoid.
In one of the classes I teach, there is an exercise where students can’t succeed. There’s too much information, there’s too many competing factions of the organization, there are too many egos involved, there’s a lot of misinformation, deception, politics, mistakes and a lot of internal and external pressure. If the students please people from group A, then group B gets really upset, and vice versa. Let me say that again, there’s not a way to succeed in this exercise, and that’s the way it’s designed. When students go through it, it’s stressful and not fun. And when we debrief the exercise, if anyone tries to defend their performance as any kind of success, I debunk that by asking by what measure it was successful. In other words, I have to get everyone to admit they failed. I have to get them to face up to this fear that they have not succeeded at something. After awhile, everyone admits the outcome was terrible, and their part in it didn’t help. And then I ask them how they feel. Is true total failure as terrible as they thought? And then I ask them what they learned. As a professor, this is one of the few assignments where I know my students learn. I don’t need to tell them about the theories behind the scenario. They lived the experience and they can teach the theory for me. And when I do teach the theory, I’m only giving them names to things they already know because they lived it. After every one of these exercises, I ask if knowing what they now know if the experience was worth having, and if they would do it again. Without an exception, they say yes. Let me say that again. In the seven or so years I have been using this exercise which guarantees failure, I have never had one student who said they didn’t learn or it wasn’t a good experience.
Maturing Christians fail a lot because they do a lot. They’re helpful. They’re kind. They act to make a difference. And they make mistakes, they say the wrong thing. But failure doesn’t stop them. And fear of failure doesn’t paralyze them. Some of the strongest Christians I know are the most forthcoming about their failures and their fears. One told me he likes to say what scares him out loud. He said once he’s said it, he begins to see how unlikely and ridiculous it often is.
Maturing Christians also succeed a lot. As Teddy Roosevelt would say, they are actually in the arena. They aren’t critics on the sidelines, they aren’t studying the marketplace or second guessing what people will think or do. They figure out their next action and then do it, no matter how big or small.
Growing up in Christianity sometimes means doing things we don’t think are important, are insignificant or we think are doomed to failure. It means writing a card to someone who’s sick. I’ve written those cards and I always think the same thing. This is lame, and it’s for someone I can’t really help. Or saying, “I’m thinking of you” to someone who has experienced a loss.
But God has always worked through man’s insignificance. In Judges 7, Gideon’s military strategy was horrible. At God’s direction, Gideon brought an army of 300 to fight an army of 132,000. And that was the point. Gideon’s army was insignificant. He couldn’t do what needed to be done. But he did something. More importantly, he did the right thing. God told him what to do and he did it. Even when he knew it was a fool’s errand.
Frozen 2 featured a song I think about a lot. It’s called “Do the Next Right Thing.” This was an idea long before Disney got it. In the movie, the main character doesn’t know how things will turn out, but she does know what the next right thing to do is. So she does it. And then she does the next right thing. So many times in our lives, we often know what’s good or what would be the right thing to do, but we don’t know if it’s worthwhile. We don’t know if we’re making much of a difference.
We will always wonder if we can guarantee success, or at the very least, minimize failure. We worry if we’ll look foolish or stupid or silly. We wonder if doing the right thing will make any difference. And sometimes it doesn’t. Life isn’t a Disney movie. Sometimes doing the right thing fails. And sometimes it works out well. It did for Gideon. There’s a passage which we often take out of context. Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to get along because they weren’t. In it he says he started the church in Corinth, another guy named Apollos was helping the church, but ultimately it was God who was in control of the outcome. I love how the King James version translates this phrase in chapter 3 . “God gave the increase.” The only thing we can do is the next right thing. God is in control of what happens after that. As doers, God wants us to be active in making change happen around us. He wants us to be doers of the things we know and not just learners. He wants us to make things happen by being the ones doing it. But ultimately we may end up changing ourselves the most. For us to grow up, we need to help others do the same.
Facebook has reminded me for years whose birthday it is. And it’s really no secret when someone gets flooded with birthday wishes how they remembered. I mean, a website told us to wish someone a happy birthday, so we wished someone a happy birthday. How silly is it that a social media site told us to do something and we did it. It seems artificial. It seems inauthentic. It seems heartless. However, from the receiving end, I’ve gotten those happy birthday messages. I’ve gotten those cards. I’ve gotten good wishes from friends. And I know the only reason they remember my birthday is because some machine reminded them. And I don’t care. We like to feel like we matter. We like to feel like someone likes us enough to think about us. We like to think people are remembering us because we are good and do good. Someone did something for us. Someone knew something and acted. Someone did the next right thing.
Just so you know, my little Abby keeps trying things. Her mother and I were both surprised a year later to find out she started a YouTube channel. By the time we found her videos, she already had 45 on her channel and about 70 subscribers. She had a few videos on how to make slime, a few where she was just acting goofy, and a few about how to coordinate outfits with her dolls. We made sure she wasn’t putting up anything inappropriate, and she wasn’t. Didn’t she know that would fail? Didn’t she know how much planning and deliberation should go into that? Didn’t she know how dangerous it was or how unlikely it was she would make any money? No, not really. She doesn’t think about it failing. She’s just trying something. She’s just doing something. She’s trying to help people make slime. She’s trying to help people dress their dolls more fashionably. And she’s learned something about people. And two years later, she inspired her dad to try something, too.
For this week’s challenge, I want you to do something. I know this sounds forced and arbitrary. But today, write down two things you’re going to DO for someone. Make it simple. Make it concrete. Make it something you can do in 30 seconds. Write two uplifting sentences on social media or a quick email to someone who may need kind words. Or use one of those apps like Venmo or the Cash app to send a few bucks to someone who would be encouraged if they had a coffee. Then do that again tomorrow. Is this an artificial and forced number? Absolutely. But to borrow a theme from episode 3, we really only manage what we measure. Count the number of good things you do today. Yes, it feels artificial. Doing the right thing feels artificial until it doesn’t. Until it’s just something you do.