A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

Baby

According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

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The Dominican Republic: Where Tarzan Is Real

7A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.

Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.

With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.

I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.

When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.

That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.

39530_lgWe gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.

We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!

I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.

They had dreams.

IMG_0004-1I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.

After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.

“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.

“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover

I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.

I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.

Tarzan 2It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.

Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?

I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.

Haunted Landscape

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Above my hometown beside the Colorado River, lies a beautiful trail with a history dark and true. The Portal Trail climbs nearly 1,000 feet, starting riverside and ending atop Poison Spider Mesa. From the alluvial plain, hikers and bikers ascend … Continue reading

An Argument for Turning Off the News

The amount of misery in the world remains strikingly steady over time. People around the world are maligned or even destroyed because of their religion, skin color, gender, size, sexual orientation.

What can the average person do about the overwhelming pain and strife riding with us through time? Yes, a special leader can step up and make substantial changes. Yes, we need to work together for a better society. But do we need to know about every atrocity, every crime, every time human depravity wells up from dark places?

Our media – sensationalist, rooted in human instinct, and efficient – broadcasts injustices over our shrinking planet for all to see. Nicholas Kristoff, my favorite columnist, travels the globe to report on humanitarian crises, human rights abuses by governments and nations, domestic crimes. Exposing vile circumstances helps us cap the quota of pain on Earth. But how much can you or I do about the fact of human suffering?

Though I disagree with Mother Teresa on some fine points (like women’s health and theism), I agree with her here:

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

– Mother Teresa

In fact, this post will be peppered with the sister’s jewels of wisdom, because she spoke robustly on the topic: ACT LOCALLY. We cannot save every little boy and girl from starving or suffering. We cannot prevent every rape. We cannot guarantee that every human brain is wired without glitches that might create sociopaths. But I can watch out for my friends. I can lend a struggling family a little support. We can embody upright values in our community.

Action

Sometimes I ask myself, how much of my life should involve the contemplation and absorption of foul narratives? Never before has so much information been so readily available. According to some calculations, we’re inundated by more than 174 newspaper’s worth of information every day. As pointed out in this article, a hundred years ago, an individual would have been lucky to read fifty books in a lifetime. Now news streams to us via telephone and TV and computer at ever faster speeds. Those innumerable horror stories aren’t a world away, they’re staring at us from a smart phone. That’s a good thing insofar as we can do something about it. But we can’t do something about everything. Mother Teresa knew it. She said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”

We may receive the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day, but much of this news is bad news. And we are missing out on two things. First, we too often fail to see good news. Second, our local problems are overridden by more shocking developments that are not only out of our reach but unrelated to our lives. Meanwhile, that local youth program lost its funding. A homeless person froze to death in the slues last week. That neighbor kid went hungry all weekend until he could get back to school for state food.

A Hero in my House

My wife recently inspired me with her embodiment of Sister Teresa’s suggestion: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” You see, we work in a school district, matching at-risk youth with volunteer mentors who boost these kids’ self-confidence, social skill, and school attachment. Each day, Megan supports these matches that, as one mentee put it, gives kids “a reason to get up and go to school, and a reason to feel better at the end of the day.” Still, Megan identified one kid to whom she could give something extra. This kid had been truant 75% of the first month of school. He never exercised. He was bullied for his weight. He was depressed and lonely and without hope.

Megan started exercising with him, taking him on walks around the school. She began pumping him up with a mantra: Come to school every day – I can do it, I know the way.

She would start: Come to school every day. He would finish: I can do it, I know the way. Rain or shine, she’d walk laps with him. Busy or tired or stressed, she always made time.

John’s class was scheduled to go on a field trip today, a hike to Delicate Arch. It’s a mile and a half uphill climb to the most incredible vista in Arches National Park. A month before the hike, it became obvious; this field trip would defeat John. He hadn’t ever been on a hike up steep slickrock. He hadn’t walked even a mile before. Chances were good that he’d have to stop with an aide and wait for his class to come back down. He wasn’t going to make it.

Over the last four weeks, Megan upped the length of their daily walks. She started talking him through visualizations of what the trail would be like, the terrain, the rock formations, his progress. They found games to pick up his pace, chasing each other’s shadows, playing tag, letting other kids join in, asking a friend to bring her dog for a walk. John loved Maya, and that happy dog pulled him by her leash, running through campus and over to the church lawn and across the nearby park, leading the panting kid toward better health.

Field Trip

The big class trip. Megan and John left early in our car, to get a head start. Megan talked with John about pacing, and she agreed to carry along his golden Pokémon card so he could hold it during their breaks. Half way up the big hill, John and Megan watched the bus pull into the parking lot below, the kids stream out into the morning sunlight. John climbed to his feet and started going again, remembering from their visualization exercises, “We’re more than half way. Soon there will be a ramp of slanting rock.”

They took a few more breaks. They carefully navigated an exposed ledge. Megan watched John’s face as they rounded the last bend and got a look at the iconic vision of Utah, the most spectacular rock feature of the West. John stopped. “Oh, WOW!” He didn’t think it would be so big. He didn’t realize he’d be so close. Visualization hadn’t captured the improbability of this rock formation.

John, left, enjoying the view of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park.

A little while later, his class showed up, kids panting. “Wow!” a girl exclaimed. “How did you get up here so fast, John?” He just beamed, the happiest kid on Earth.

A Cup of Light

John hasn’t missed a day of school in months. His mom reports, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.” His grades are up. He’s gaining more friends in his class. A few days ago, John said, “School is better now, because Megan walks with me every day.”

Where will the average, extraordinary person do the most good? Locally.

I vow to read a little less bad news. I vow to be more like my wife. I vow to live more like Mother Teresa:

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

WHY RISK?

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Horseback riding. Ski jumping. Motorcycles. These are the avocations of my immediate family members. My mom began riding horses as soon as she could walk, and at sixty-five, she still loves to gallop through pastures and over rough logging roads. She … Continue reading