By: Noelle Sterne
“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.” ―
I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. After receiving my doctorate, I taught college for several years but craved more time to do my own writing instead of incessant paper-grading and faculty meetings. So I quit a prestigious teaching job (or got fired, depending on your perspective). But I had to earn a living.
Over coffee, I complained to a friend who lived in the same university neighborhood and prepared manuscripts for commercial publishers. She suggested I consider going freelance to type graduate students’ papers for submission. Rationally she pointed out, “You’ve been through it, and they need someone intelligent.” My friend generously gave me some pointers, and soon clients were calling. My business thrived.
Settling for Less? Just Another Mistake?
For a lot of years, I served clients in this way. In the process, I gained the flexibility and freedom to do my own writing. And I learned much—about university rules and rubrics; about the particular focus, structure, and academic lingo necessary for acceptable papers; and, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, about streamlining words to say what you mean and mean what you say.
And more—When students confided in me about their constantly fighting deadlines and struggling with professors’ expectations, I learned how to interact empathically with them and comfort and reassure them. Gradually too, as they kept asking for my opinion, I learned how to advise them to create stronger papers.
But for a long time, I considered this business a career blunder. Looking closer, though, I see that all the “mistaken” experiences were perfect preparation for my current profession of academic coaching and editing. Here, with doctoral student clients, I practice the same principles I learned earlier but now for more extended periods and with greater doses of solace. I’ve become more proficient at the details, sharper at spotting the flaws, more trusting of my experience and intuition, and quicker at recommending what’s likely to please the university powers.
No Mistake, Just Lessons
I didn’t suspect or foresee it at the time, but the academic practice has contributed immeasurably to my own writing. I more quickly hone in on specific subjects, more often stick to the point, more fully trust my creativity, and most often edit and re-edit. And based on the academic services, I wrote and published a handbook for struggling dissertation writers, and with a largely ignored spiritual component.
When Will I Learn from the Mistakes?
Was my “”descending” to typing a mistake? No way. There are no mistakes. Here is Unity author Martha Smock’s often reprinted poem titled “No Other Way” (in Fear Not! Unity Books 1986, p. 29):
Could we but see the pattern of our days,
We should discern how devious were the ways
By which we came to this, the present time,
This place in life; and we should see the climb
Our soul has made up through the years.
We should . . . know
That we could come no other way or grow
Into our good without these steps our feet
Found hard to take, our faith found hard to meet.
Certainly, the ways we come can be hard, disappointing, frustrating, enraging. We may lament, “When, oh when!” But these hard steps are necessary for our growth into the good that waits for us. Spiritual teacher Catherine Ponder (Pray and Grow Rich, Parker Publishing,1982, p. 92) assures us, “Regardless of the number of breaks that appear in the lines of your life, growth is taking place.”
Viewing the Experiences in a Different Light
An expert on conscious relationships and personal growth, Joyce Vissell places our laments in a broader context in “A Higher Plan for Your Life,” Living Now, February 2014,
We try to plan our lives so carefully, and yet we need to always know that there is a greater plan at work. When you are disappointed when your life does not go according to your plan, just wait and see what wonderful things are planned for you.
With enough introspection, we see the pattern and growth. We can then learn from and build upon each experience.
Not Wasted Time
Maybe we still don’t like the immediate outcome, but if we’re honest, we’ll come to appreciate the miraculous line of our growth.
It can even be fun: “If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have met her.
and,…If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have found out about that.
then,…If I hadn’t found out about that, I wouldn’t have made the call to him.
so,…If I hadn’t called him, I wouldn’t be married now” (oops—maybe you want to stop here).
When we follow the sequence, we’re more likely to acknowledge that there are no mistakes. Then we can stop recriminating ourselves with all those stern-teacher epithets that keep us feeling stupid, small, and worthless. Instead, we can view what we’ve labeled “mistakes” as necessary steps, as in my own example, toward the future we want to create.
The Price of Mistake-Labeling
Besides, where does all that self-castigation get us? It only keeps us low, depressed, and apathetic. The self-blame too almost always leads to comparisons with others. They did it, they did more, they did better. Such thoughts—even though, they may be similarly labeling their own lives—lead us to a terrible downward spiral. We give in to despair and lose our energy and enthusiasm for what we want most to do.
When we see the line of our lives as perfect, even with all the detours, tangents, strayings, and long-ways-around, we don’t have to give in to that poisonous mistake-labeling. Instead, we can realize how every experience has led to our present evolvement and growth and feel the exhilaration of building from here.
Make a Little List
Now, with the following exercise, take a moment to reflect on how you’ve profited even from “bad” experiences. When you do this exercise, you’ll come to a new, healthier point of view on your “mistakes” and will see that your life has truly been in divine order.
1. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes of quiet, in a place you feel comfortable in, with no distractions.
2. Be ready to write, with a pen and paper or computer, whichever feels more natural. You may want to dictate into a phone or recorder. Physical writing or typing, though, generally loosens your associative powers.
3. Think about different events in your life. They can be major or not—moving to a new house, your brother’s birth, entering college, getting a new job, your marriage or divorce, going to a certain party, making a certain decision, taking a certain course, getting a certain pet, meeting a certain person, striking up a certain conversation, stepping into a certain elevator. Write them down.
4. These events don’t have to be chronological, momentous, or obviously life-changing. Sometimes a particular recollection can appear trivial, but it has tremendous ramifications. You’re the only one who can give meaning to what you note down.
5. Sit with your list. Take one event and trace it forward. The connections will begin to reveal themselves. In my case, if I hadn’t admitted to myself that teaching wasn’t satisfying, I wouldn’t have broken a few “rules” that got me fired. I wouldn’t then have made the “mistake” of starting a typing business . . . and then editing . . . developing the coaching business . . . and writing a book about it.
What Have I Learned From the Mistakes?
I discovered another connection: during my typing years, one of my clients introduced me to a children’s book writer who generously helped me refine a manuscript and encourage me to publish it.
A year later my children’s book Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles (HarperCollins) came out.
Not only was the book successful for many years but the creative process led me to write and publish several articles about it in writers’ magazines, increased my confidence as a writer, and led to invitations to write more . . . all from a typing client.
6. When you’ve had enough for one session, put your list away. Know that the answers will be revealed.
7. A day or several later, give yourself another session with the list. You’ll see more connections and gain more insights.
8. Acknowledge all you’re learning. No connection has been random or coincidental. You will likely see that all your “mistakes” had great purpose.
9. Rename and reframe your “mistakes” as learnings.
10. And finally, forgive yourself with affirmative statements:
I now forgive myself for any choices I have labeled as mistakes.
They have served me well, and I thank them and bless them.
My life is in Divine Order.
When we recognize the growth inherent in our “mistakes,” and even sufferings, we accept the preparation they gave us for later things important to us. Nothing about your life has been wasted. As you trace the events and happenings, you’ll see that all your choices, decisions, and experiences have been no less than perfect.
Continue to accept every part of your life. You’ll grow from where you are. And you’ll see that there are no mistakes.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Noelle has delivered requested presentations on academic writing at several universities and is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA). She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications, on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018 she was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groan worthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees.
As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire. Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she is completing her first novel.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart. When you give people life lessons their recovery improves. Got some life, addiction, or recovery lessons you’d like to share? Then consider a guest post.