Years ago, after a junior high teacher in my congregation returned from an education conference, I asked if she’d learned anything memorable. She responded with a story she’d heard about Jonas Salk, the legendary scientist who created the polio vaccine. As the story goes, someone asked Salk what helped him become successful. He gave credit to his parents, saying that when he was growing up, he wasn’t scolded if he spilled milk. Instead, his father would ask him, “What did you learn from that?” This made him unafraid to fail in his work – which happened in one experiment after another. But, unencumbered by negative self-judgment, he persevered and eventually developed the vaccine.
It’s a question I’ve found very useful over the years.
If I say or do something I regret, it’s easy to get angry with myself. My adrenaline rises along with feelings of self-doubt, and I can get entangled in an emotional thicket. But if I pause, take a breath, and say to myself, “What did I learn from that?” – the adrenaline isn’t summoned. Instead, I try to call forth a curious, inquiring mind. If I take time for reflection, I may recognize patterns of behavior that were present and bring them to light. That, in turn, may help me truly learn something useful from a painful experience.
It is a key concept in Buddhist mindfulness practice…we observe and accept the feelings we are experiencing but don’t identify or become attached to them. We try to cultivate a calm, non-judgmental perspective.
It also resonates with Jesus’ teachings. His followers were encouraged to embrace forgiveness freely. That didn’t mean they were to evade personal responsibility. Instead, they could look at themselves through the lens of the limitless love of God, which can liberate us from destructive self-judgment and the ever-present temptation to judge others.
“What did I learn from that?” can be useful in many situations.
I’ve found it is a useful question in parenting. If we are dealing with a decision one of my children made that has not turned out well, and the mood is right, I like to ask them, “What did you learn from that?” and listen with respect and curiosity.
In my role as a leader, I’ve found it’s an excellent question to ask an employee who has made a mistake, and to ask myself when something has not gone the way I had expected. It’s also effective if the organization has been through a difficult time to pose the question for the staff: “What did we learn from that?”
Our country went through great turmoil in 2020. What did we learn from that?
And COVID has exposed many vulnerabilities in our globalized lifestyle and systems. Will we learn the many lessons it’s offering us?
I invite you to keep this simple question close at hand as you go through your day and your week. If a situation warrants it, try using it.
We can’t get the milk back in the glass, but we can always be learning.