Steve’s Second Law: Mistakes & Learning Opportunities

“It’s only a mistake if you fail to learn something from it; otherwise it’s a learning opportunity.”

-Steve’s Second Law


FUMCAL Altar, circa 2004

The Cut Stone Altar of Foundation Church


This law came into being when I was a pastor in Temple, Texas and had a great program staff who liked to try new things in worship.  Sometimes they went well, sometimes not, but I wanted to be understanding of my staff’s effort to try something new, and not punish when it didn’t.  They would kick themselves just fine; I didn’t need to add to it.   I hoped fear would not impede creativity or progress.  So it wasn’t a mistake as much as it was an opportunity for learning.  Wouldn’t it be easier to be Presbyterian at this point? “I glad we got that out of the way,” as if whatever went terribly wrong had been predestined to happen.

One of the things that exhausts, or maybe the word is exacerbates me is this expectation of perfection in activity.  It seems rare anymore that people just do something because they like doing it. Instead they have to be the best, “Go big or go home,” I believe the expression goes.

Dad used to say,

 “If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again”

–Wesley F. Buchele

I like that iterative approach because I think we humans learn so much more from our mistakes, as long as they are new mistakes.  What I can’t abide is repeating the same mistake.



Ann Richards & Clayton Williams


 Photo Credit: The Texas Tribute


In 1990 Clayton Williams and Ann Richards ran for the open seat of the governor of Texas.  Right from the start Williams did well in the polls, and victory looked assured, but then there was a series of gaffes. Texas Monthly reports:

It was a rainy day in March, and the press had gathered at his ranch outside Midland to watch some cattle roping. When one of his hands mentioned to him that the reporters were getting restless, good ol’ boy Williams tried to make light of the situation by comparing bad weather to rape: “If it’s inevitable,” he said, “just relax and enjoy it.” After that comment appeared in print and went on to make national news, Williams’ twenty-point lead over Ann Richards plummeted, and she went on to beat him by a hair.

In between the joke, and election day there we other unhinged moments until a few days before the election Mr. Williams bragged about not paying taxes, and then it was over.

After the election, then Attorney General Jim Maddox remarked:

“I can understand a man shooting himself in the foot; what I can’t understand is Why Keep Reloading?”

My point is, it is not a mistake if we learn something from it, but emptying the chamber into your own foot, and then reloading?  Einstein was wrong, insanity isn’t doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, stupidity is.  But what is worse is not even trying for fear of screwing it up, because it is those screw-ups that make the journey interesting.

Goat crossing bridge, Berekuso

Will I learn something if I cross this bridge?


In his latest book What Is the Bible?, Rob Bell does a wonderful job of reimagining something St. Paul wrote to the Ephesian church

“to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”

–St. Paul

He explains that to bring unity can be unpacked to something like–and I’m not really doing justice to Rob Bell–the pleasure God receives in the retelling or reimagining our story.  This unity comes from the LORD knowing all that has happened and seeing its structure as a whole, in the ways our successes and especially our failures led to the person/people we have become today.  Donald Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame wrote”

“Stories have pre-decided plots as opposed to a random series of events.”

–Donald Miller, How to Tell a Story.

He continues:

I’ve realized the films Tommy Boy, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Hunger Games and even Moneyball are basically, at their bones, the same plot. Simply plug in different characters and different dilemmas while keeping the same form and you’ve got a winning structure for a story.

The thing is, God sees the unity of our structure, the pre-decided plot, that feels from our point of view, like a series of random events, successes, and failures.  I suppose that pre-decided plot could be seen as predestination, but for the different characters and different dilemmas.



My second law states that mistakes are not always mistakes, they can be learning opportunities,  but that depends on intent going into it.  Lets take popcorn, for example.  In the Buchele household, popcorn is serious business, especially on Sunday nights–movie night–when it goes by another name: dinner.


cooking oil: neutral tasting, like sunflower seed oil

1.5 cups of popcorn

1 teaspoon salt

turmeric (optional)

In a large heavy bottom stock pot, pour enough oil to cover the bottom with 1/16 inch (1.5mm).  Drop three kernels of popcorn into the pot, cover and place on burner on high.  Wait until you hear kernels pop.  Turn fire off, and remove from stove. Add the rest of the popcorn and wait 30-45 seconds.  This slowly heats up all the kernels so they mostly all pop. 

I learned this technique from Dick Waterbury, or I should say, from his family after the dear man died suddenly when I was a pastor in Georgetown.  For the Waterbury Family, popcorn was serious business too.  I remember more than one story being told about Dick’s amazing popcorn.  “So how did he make such amazing popcorn?” I asked. 

Dick’s method involved warming the cold popcorn first before applying full-fire.   Often I will sprinkle 1 teaspoon of turmeric, atop the popcorn.  Turmeric adds a nice butter yellow color to the popped corn, and its good for the liver.

While waiting for the popcorn to pop, use a mortar and pestle or coffee/spice grinder to make salt dust.   The salt dust uses less salt and provides a much more uniform coating of salt to the popcorn.

When enough popcorn has popped, say 5-8 inches/20cm, remove the cover and let steam escape as the corn continues to pop.  Trapped steam makes the popped corn tough and chewy instead of crisp and crunchy.

When no popping sound is heard for 10 seconds, remove immediately and pour popped corn into a large bowl and stir. Popcorn will continue to cook in the pot and burn.   In three batches, sprinkle salt dust, stir popcorn well, sprinkle, stir…

Serve and taste perfection.

Is perfection (like this) overrated?   I know it seems like a lot of trouble, but it is really above average good, and once you have had popcorn this good, Could it a mistake to make it any other way?

No–if you are trying to further improve on the perfection of popcorn, i.e. fail, fail again.

Yes — if it all seems like too much trouble, you are too lazy, don’t like dirtying two pans, or don’t care.  Microwave popcorn is pretty good too.  We can’t all be the Picasso of Popcorn.

I guess the mistake vs learning opportunity comes down to intent.  The unexamined error is most likely a mistake, but that mistake could be transformed into a learning opportunity by examination.   What can I learn from this, or the why did this happen.  The intent to learn as opposed “oh, well,” “my bad,” “oops.”

“The unexamined life,” Socrates wrote, “it not worth living,” which seems a little harsh, but maybe that is what the living of life is, an examination of what the universe hopes to teach us and when we fear to make mistakes or refuse to examine them, it is as if we are closing our mind off to learning; pushing ourselves away from the table of knowledge saying “thanks, I’m full; I’ve had enough.”

“It’s only a mistake if you fail to learn something from it; otherwise it’s a learning opportunity.”


4 thoughts on “Steve’s Second Law: Mistakes & Learning Opportunities

  1. i agree, and would add the corollary: “anything worth doing, is worth doing badly”.
    As teachers & mentors we should talk more much about failure, how it (should) help us, and what we (should) learn from it.
    I look forward to the popcorn recipe, too!

  2. I read in a comment in a National Parks & Recreation magazine that you have to keep your failure to success ratio high so you new you were trying enough new programming ideas.
    On the other hand, when discussing improvisation: if you make a mistake, repeat it two more times, and then it’s jazz…

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