The “f” word

My 8-year-old nephew Griffin failed at growing the biggest sweet potato in the world. Earlier this year, he dug a little garden in his back yard and planted an old potato that had started to sprout. A budding scientist, he explained his project to me when I visited him after my return from abroad. “I think I’m going to dig it up on October 3rd,” he said, with the furrowed brow and compulsive seriousness of an 8-year-old budding scientist. “I think that will be the right time.”

And so he did. On the cloudless autumn morning of October 3rd, his spade unearthed a potato that had become the nucleus of an impressively complex network of roots. It was not, however, by any stretch, the biggest sweet potato in the world. “I’m a failure,” he wailed. And he was right. Sort of.

Since I’ve been back I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. I suppose it’s just me wrestling with a way to sum up my recent Range Living, and with what to do next. Not to mention the fact that of the first three meals I tried to cook, all ended in disaster (think: flaming chicken).

In a strict constructionist view, I failed at what I set out to do when I left New York in April of 2009. The evidence is clear: I’m no longer away, and I’m not sure that I’ll be leaving again anytime soon. Yes, there are things I would have done differently. But to me, half the fun – of life, of travel – is having things not quite work out as planned. It’s how you learn…so you can do things differently next time. Or do different things.

I’ve always been kinda obsessed with hero-worship in American culture. In the public sphere, chance-takers are presented as rebel-heroes after they have leaped *and* landed, when they are confident and smiling. It’s only once they’ve sat down to sushi with an interviewer that we hear about their ramen-eating days. Or months. Or years. Looking back from the point of success, though, it all seems inevitable. A person’s personal story reads like a novel, preordained from page one. In hindsight, we can divine the future from the tea leaves quite easily.

But what about all the chance-takers who never succeed (so to speak)?

Griffin’s shoulders drooped. He kicked the treasonous soil, pouting. He carried the offending potato to the edge of the woods and hacked it up with a spade. “I’m a failure!” he repeated, wallowing in self-pity that bordered on the adolescent.

I tried to explain to him that many famous leaps in science came about as a result of a failure (or a screw-up). He didn’t want to hear about it at that moment, but I hope he was still listening.

So Griff, here it is again: It’s important to embrace failure – indeed, to view it as a success.

2 thoughts on “The “f” word

  1. The United States’ culture of “no fear of failure” is one of the things that keeps the US competitive with the rest of the world that is ever advancing technologically and educationally. The stepping stones of small, supported risks/failures have created many of the biggest technological and business innovations. CEOs are expected to have one or more entrepreneurial failures before they’re really taken seriously.
    Alas, trying to explain it to an 8-year-old is not the easiest job in the world. Hopefully, Griffin’s failure to understand now results in some later great technological innovation!

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