During this holiday season, and especially in 2020, I’ve spent more than a few minutes devoted to gratitude.
And a roller-coaster year like this needs a gentle docking berth that allows us to recognize the gift of failing.
Looking back over my life, I can pinpoint a couple of strategic failings that yielded benefits I’m still enjoying.
The Sting of Defeat
The first was not making the baseball team in middle school.
To appreciate the pressure on me at that time, please understand that my mother was a high school health and physical education teacher. She’s always been active in sports and a great athlete.
In fact, at 97, she still works out with weights and tension strings every morning. “If you don’t use it, you lose it” is her mantra.
She still lives independently… and thinks independently. Ha!
My older brother, three years my senior, was an outstanding athlete. He played football and did gymnastics. He even installed a set of rings on a tree branch in our front yard.
Lots of country folks have a tire swing, but rings? I would watch in amazement as he held the iron cross.
So as the second born with the desire to make a name for myself, I went out for the baseball team in seventh grade.
I still remember the emotional sting of the final team posting – my name was not on it.
I’d already had success in fine arts… winning spelling bees, winning poetry reading contests and writing essays. One of my seventh-grade teachers had started a debate team, where I thrived.
I also picked up the trumpet and enjoyed it far more than those pesky piano lessons I’d had for several years.
I wasn’t ready to give up on athletics, though, so in eighth grade I tried out for the basketball team.
It was clear that I was going to be taller than my older brother, so I thought that while his stout build may be better suited for football and gymnastics, I might find a place in basketball.
Again, I didn’t make the team.
But here’s where my gratitude comes in.
Finding the Sweet Spot
My earlier foray into debate led me to join the extracurricular interscholastic debate team in the eighth grade (our high school at that time was grades eight to 12). Unable to compete until ninth grade (you could call me a redshirt debater), I scrimmaged and did much of the research for the team that year. And I fell head over heels in love with it. Indeed, the seniors on the team were glad they were on the way out.
So after I was cut from the basketball tryouts, I made a mental vow to never play school sports again. I decided I would devote my attention completely to communication competition.
And that’s exactly what I did. Debate, public speaking, extemporaneous speaking, and forensics (speech and theater) became my home and passion.
To be sure, this essay is not meant to denigrate sports. I enjoy watching a good game and have always enjoyed playing pickup games.
The point here is to appreciate our failures as part of a discovery process… how we find the sweet spot where what we love, what we know and what we’re skilled at all converge.
That’s where we create happiness and accomplishment.
Recognizing our strengths as well as our weaknesses is foundational to efficiently directing our energy. The whole “strengths finder” idea is about leveraging our innate abilities and finding partners to complement our weaknesses.
What if I had gone into an emotional funk about not playing baseball or basketball?
What if my self-worth were tied to success in an arena where I couldn’t compete?
What if I had squandered my high school years persevering in my weaknesses?
I’d have lost all that experience developing as a communicator, increasing my vocabulary and encountering different ideas.
Best Decision I Ever Made
Another big “failure” was when I went to the school guidance counselor for my senior-year curriculum.
By that time, I knew I was going to do something with writing… and I wanted to be the fastest typist around. Efficiency required being able to get words on a page. A distinct advantage went to the one who could get them on faster than others.
Rather than take physics, the go-to science elective for smart students, I chose typing. Yes, that lowly vocational class for secretary-bound students. (It had nothing to do with the fact that the girl-boy ratio was about 20-to-2.)
The guidance counselor berated me for wanting to take typing instead of physics. She said I’d regret the day. I might not even get into college. How disappointing, that a college-bound student would eschew an academic class for a vocational one. What a failure.
But it was the best decision I ever made. I can type as fast as I can talk, which means I can crank out material faster than most. I can also make changes faster than most. That’s a godsend.
My message to children is always to be thankful for failures because they help shape us in profound ways toward our destiny.
We might not know it at the time. The sting is real. But bouncing off the failure into an arena where we excel brings us to a place of deep gratitude for those defeats.
The key is to not despair in the defeat, but pivot. When our balloon deflates, get a different one and blow it up.
That’s a great life lesson for children and adults, don’t you think?
What failures have fueled your success? Share your stories at email@example.com.