I was in 8th grade and my school soccer team was playing against North Warren. They were the only team that had beaten us all season. It was late in the game and the score was still tied. Someone passed me the ball as I was wide open in front of the unprotected goal. I shot the ball and it sailed over the goal. It almost defied physics! I was so close to the goal that missing seems as though it was harder to do than scoring. The memory of that shot is almost 30 years old and it still bugs me a little bit. All of these years later though, I’ve come to realize that I had to miss that shot. In all of our lives, there are things that we really have to f%#@ up.
No one wants to fail. The disappointment, the shaken confidence and the negative memory are all reason enough to avoid failure. People are always trying to give themselves the best chance for success in any endeavor. Aiming for success is always crucial but always achieving it is both impractical and probably detrimental to future successes.
The path to where you are is probably filled with potholes, detours and the occasional breakdown. Even though we think that we want a smooth and clear path to our destination, most of the fire that we have in our belly comes from past failures. Learning how to live through and overcome failure are key ingredients to a growth mindset. Although we live in a physical world, the beginning of almost everything in our lives starts in our mental world. That is the space where failure can be taken, molded and turned into a stepping stone for future success. I’m sure that you want whatever you’re working on right now to be a great success and I hope that it is. However what if you need to F%#@ this up to succeed later. Part of the equation is that you really want to succeed but recognize in the long term f%#@ ups are part of the equation too.
Seinfeld is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It has so many memorable episodes and characters. Despite my love for the series, I’m not a huge fan of the early episodes. Many of the episodes, I just don’t find funny at all or they feel forced. This is not surprising in the slightest. It took those early episodes in order to get to the later ones. Early failures lead to better episodes later. A few of the story-lines were even repeated with better effect the second time around. The early episodes of Seinfeld were not a good indication of where the series was going.
Despite all of the examples of enduring early hardship, there is still a pervasive desire for instantaneous results. People want to be hit right away, if not sooner. The perception of overnight success is usually due to the glossing over of the hard work done before the big break. Sylvester Stallone was a breakout start with Rocky! After he was a starving actor who had to deny a big pay day in order to star in his own movie. J.K. Rowling had the blockbuster Harry Potter book series followed by movies. After she was on welfare and had her book rejected by many publishers. Most of us are looking for the triumph without the trials. It seems that it doesn’t usually work that way.
The road to success in anything will most likely be filled with potholes, detours and poorly constructed bridges. The sports car or limo that you’ve imagined yourself arriving in will probably not make the trip. In fact you’ll probably have to go most of the way on foot. Are you willing to make that trip? Or will you take the easy road to Nowhere Near Where You Want To Be? It sounds like a town that many people live in while they dream about being someplace else.
In 1998, Mark McGwire hit more home-runs than any other player in MLB history. I vividly remember watching the games to see if he would break Hank Aaron’s record and I’m not even a baseball fan. At the time, I remember becoming personally moved by the chase for the home-run record. It changed the way that I thought about several things in my life and it had nothing to do with home-runs but rather strikeouts. McGwire lead the league in home-runs that year but he was also near the top of the leader board for strikeouts. He struck out 2.2 times more than he hit home-runs. In theory, the strikeouts are failure but in reality they are three more pieces of data.
From the outside, the strikeout seems ugly and unwanted. I’ve never heard anyone say “that’s the best strikeout I’ve ever had!” The beauty of the strikeout happens inside. It’s the internal process of finding the next home-run from the mistakes made in the strikeout. Personally I always attributed this to dating. The strikeout/rejection was originally paralyzing and kept me from stepping up to the plate. It was after McGwire’s record breaking season that I started to embrace the beauty of the strikeout.
Many of us go through life hoping that things will be easy. We want life to pitch us as many “meatballs” as possible, so that we can get on base. The problem with this hope is that it guarantees us a life in little league where you hit off a tee or a lobbed pitch from a coach. If you want to play life at a higher level, you need to be willing to take some strikeouts and get back up to the plate to chance it again. If they are considered data and not a death sentence for your self-esteem, then strikeouts are an amazing tool. The key is that something must be learned from each one.
So become a strikeout analyst. Don’t shy away from the opportunity that your failures give you. Most failure is not fatal and is only negative if we do not see the lesson. The beauty of the strikeout is expressed in that next home-run. So take a swing and use your mistakes as ingredients for your next success.
About 75% of the grilled cheese sandwiches that I’ve eaten in my adult life have been burnt. The surprising thing is that I only burn about 40% of the sandwiches that I make. Obviously my cooking needs some work but even with that, it would seem that I go out of my way to eat burnt grilled cheeses. Closer to the truth is that I refuse to throw away the burnt ones. My wife and children get to eat the quality sandwiches. A burnt grilled cheese sandwich is not a thing to be discarded when you are the cook. The failure to find the correct temperature and timing is a learning opportunity.
Too often we look to forget, edit or deny our painful past. We choose to throw it away as if it were a sandwich that had spent too long on the pan. It is just too difficult to swallow. We cannot face the fact that we made a mistake. Silently we blame circumstances or other people for the charred mess. So we discard it and move on to simpler things that require less skill or timing. This world is filled with the prepackaged, no preparation, no thought products that will make us feel better. Or better yet, there is a soup and grilled cheese restaurant that would be happy to do it for you. In the end, your failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your thought goes from “I didn’t make a good grilled cheese.” to “I CAN’T make a good grilled cheese.” Or maybe worse, ” I can’t cook anything.” This all seems a little extreme for one sandwich but it happens every day with so many things beside sandwiches.
Failure is not fun. I’m not suggesting that you should enjoy it and it is completely unnecessary to live there. However it is useful to digest the things that have happened. Take what nutrients there is to be acquired and improve upon the next attempt. PAY ATTENTION TO THESE TWO POINTS THOUGH! 1.) You should not feel obligated to eat everyone else’s burnt sandwiches. You’re eating your own ONLY in order to get better results in the future. 2.) Don’t get into a competition to prove that your sandwich is the worst. Winning that competition gives you a prize that you don’t want.
So go out into that kitchen that you call your life. Take the ingredients that you have and make the best things that you can think of. When you burn something (and you will), don’t brand yourself a failure. Swallow it down and move onto the next dish. NOTHING that you make will be perfect but all of it will be yours. Own it! Make today perfectly imperfect!
In the 1980’s Robert Urich (not my uncle), starred in a poorly made B movie called “Ice Pirates”. The story is based in the future where the only resource that matters is water. The ice pirates are a comedic band of humans and robots who initially try to steal whatever water they can find. However they end up stumbling into a bigger adventure to help a Princess find her father who was lost looking for Mithra “the water planet”. There’s more to it but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
The ice pirates in many ways are not what I would describe as role models. However despite their shortcomings, they slowly but surely move toward their goal. At the beginning, they never could have anticipated where they would end up. They make several mistakes along the way. They don’t have the right resources. Obstacles and enemies keep coming up to stop them. Their path is not a straight line but a series of unexpected turns and setbacks. They are me and they are you.
If nothing else, the Ice Pirates had a clear vision of what they wanted. Perhaps you’re not even there but it doesn’t have to be as life and death as water. It could be as simple as a goal for the day. Regardless of how big or small you choose to make your goal, the way of the Ice Pirates is completely acceptable. Stumble forward through each of your missteps and be prepared to laugh at your past mistakes. Although you may be striving for the promised land, you are not a mythical creature with superhuman abilities. You are fallible and should expect to fail OFTEN! Victory is not guaranteed to those that begin with the greatest advantage. It is guaranteed to those that continue until the prize is won.
PS – Don’t watch Ice Pirates unless you have two hours to kill and go in with low expectations!
“Daddy, Watch this!” is a phrase that I heard about two hundred times yesterday. My seven year old daughter was saying it as she performed an underwater back-flip or some other trick in the pool. The consistent request got me thinking about the request. While she was extremely happy to do the trick on her own, it became even more important that she share it with me. The perfection of her delivery did not matter, each attempt was important even the “failures”.
As she flipped in the water, I thought about my students, adult friends and myself. We generally primp, polish and perfect everything before we put it on display. The obvious reason for this is a form of fear. We have failure shamed out of us by the time we are teenagers. The unfortunate thing is that failure is a necessary ingredient to all progress. Although public display of failure isn’t particularly necessary, I’m not sure many of us seek out failure in private either. In a society where no one ever fails, we stand still and become spectators watching the same old tired tricks that we’ve seen before.
So now what do you do? What do I do? We fail forward. We try to top what we’ve done before with the childlike optimism that we can. Then as we get closer and closer to our coveted goal, we can scream at the top of our lungs “WATCH THIS!” Perhaps we’ll fall on our faces. However I’d rather be face-down ready to try again than be standing on the sidelines with an empty heart and only criticism to offer the world.
On the thumb of my left hand, I have a scar that looks something like a horseshoe. It is the result of an accident when I was in sixth grade. My family was putting an addition on our house. We were not wealthy by any stretch, so we had to do much of the work ourselves. My father and I were removing a window from the old part of the house. I’m still not sure what happened but the glass shattered. In a very lucky instantaneous reaction, I cover my face. I felt myself get hit, turned and saw blood.
The one sidenote that I must make about this story is that my father had been known to pass out at the sight of blood. So at that point, I stripped off my t-shirt and started screaming at my father to get away from me. He thought I was mad at him but then I quickly explained that I was bleeding and I didn’t want him to pass out. I ran to the front of the house and got my mother who took me to the hospital for 18 stitches.
I am quite literally scarred for life and I couldn’t be happier that I am. It’s not the accident that I’m happy about. Given the choice I never would want to have a window shatter on top of me. However my reaction to the situation is why that memory creates such a positive feeling about that mark. In a time of crisis, I was able to keep that problem from getting worse by having two people going to the hospital. I was response-able.
In no way do I think that we should go out looking to accumulate scars. However there should be no shame in having them either. They are sign that you were not insulated from life. Life has edges that can cut. It’s very common in today’s world to avoid the edges and play it safe. The problem is that you can’t dull every edge nor anticipate when you’ll get cut. So what happens to someone who has spent a lifetime avoiding those edges and they mistakenly get cut? That wound is catastrophic because they’re not ready to be hurt.
Failure, disappointment, upset, breakups, and breakdowns are all examples of the scars of life. Don’t pursue them but don’t be afraid of them either. Most of the time they are a reminder of who you have become by fighting through them.
On May 6th in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the World Record for running the mile. He was the first man to run one mile in under four minutes. Many runners had attempted the run but all had failed until Bannister. Although he is remembered for “breaking” something, I contend that what he created was much more important: possibility.
The key to Bannister’s run is that he opened the door of possibility for other people to do the same*. He pushed the edge of what humans were capable of doing. All it takes is one person to show us that our limits are not what we thought they were. Lindberg, Edison, Robinson and countless others swept aside the past to show a brighter future with fewer limits. It seems to be the natural order of things that when the bar is raised, we rise to the occasion to meet it. From my own life, I know that my father was the first in his family to go to college. It is no longer a novelty. All of my brothers and I attended college. The Bannister Effect could be found in many people’s lives.
Is the difference between impossible and possible only a matter of time? How many people told Bannister he couldn’t before he did? How many people scoffed at Lindberg before he was cheered in Paris? How many people turned a blind eye to Edison before they saw the light?
The critics will always be there and their ridicule of your dream will be true, until it’s not. In the end if you give up, they’ll have their “I told you so” moment and everyone will move on. If you persevere and triumph, they’ll stand silent and everyone will move up. I would love to see you rise up rather than give up.
*Additional information: World Records for the mile date back to the 1850s. The time slowly and incrementally decreased over the next ninety years when Gunder Hägg of Sweden ran a 4:01.4. Then it took ten years before Bannister broke through the four-minute barrier. Six weeks later, Bannister’s record was broken. Today his time from 1954 is six seconds slower than the high school record for the mile.