Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Successful Failure Pt.3 - Progress

Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.  ~Henry Ford

We had a family of robins take up residence under our deck this summer.  We watched as the eggs hatched and the chicks grew.  Eventually, the four newborns were cramming the nest.  With each worm ingested, overcrowding became a bigger problem. 

One afternoon, I was making quite a racket moving out extension ladder to work on our gutters.  Between being heavy and awkward (the ladder, that is, not the ladder mover), this is an ordeal that involves a fair amount of swaying, jangling, and clunking from the ladder coupled with grunting, huffing, and anesthetized swearing from me.  Mother and father robin quickly flew to safety in nearby branches.  To the nest-bound robinettes, this must have seemed like a terrifying display.  Unnerved by their front row seat to my ladder jousting, they took to the air despite their unfamiliarity with the techniques of flying.  One by one they bounded out of the nest - a first flight, distinctly lacking in grace and confidence.  One flew to a branch in a nearby tree, another to a step ladder leaning against the house, a third took a quick descent to the ground and began hopping about.  Their wings appeared weak, their navigation sloppy. 

Mother and father chirped frantically from their nearby roost as they looked on helplessly.  There was no turning back.  The chick’s chance of navigating back into the nest appeared slim.   It would require deft maneuvering far too advanced for these neophytes.  They would either learn to fly or die in the process. I declared a truce with my nemesis, setting the ladder in place and stepping back to watch these chicks get their wings.

Over the next half hour their technique quickly improved.  They began flying from place to place over gradually increasing distances.  Improvement was most noticeable in their landings.  Initial flights ended abruptly, as if unplanned.  They would hit landing points forcefully and need a moment to gain their composure.  Sometimes there was a little bounce and then a resettling.  They had no clear target, just the hope of safe arrival.  Over time the landings were more graceful. They would approach deliberately and float to rest gently.  Soon they were flying with confidence, venturing beyond the back yard into the front.  They never returned to the nest.

From stuttering flight to aerial confidence, the chicks learned to fly through repeated trial.  Some they could learn from watching mom and dad, but much they had to learn through experience.  They were learning from their mistakes.  With each flight they were adding to their skills. 

Failure is not absolute when it acts as a tutor, instructing us of how we can do better the next time.  It is a stepping stone to success.  We can reach further perched on the rubble of failed attempts.  In my last post I suggested that failure invites perseverance.  And now I propose that perseverance allows for progress, one more facet of successful failure.  Successes of today arise out of the failures of yesterday.  Most of what I do well now can be directly linked to lessons learned from past failures.

I started teaching Jr. High Sunday School three weeks ago.  Teaching is one thing I do well.  But I haven’t taught Jr. High in a long time and had forgotten how squirrely they can be.  In my first week I didn’t manage the class well.  Too much chatter in the class, not enough focus to my lesson.  Failure (though, not absolute).  In the weeks that have followed I have changed my approach.  Two simple solutions.  First, I removed the table, a barrier between me and the students.  Now I can stand next to any student who is getting too noisy.  Second, I narrowed the focus of my lesson.  Instead of covering everything in the lesson plan, I pick one thing and drill deep.  It is working.  The class is more attentive, the lessons are more memorable, and I more competent as a teacher.  More competent through failure.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Succesful Failure Pt.2 - Persistence

In my last post (Successful Failure - Part 1) I introduced the idea of failure as an ally.  It is possible to handle failure successfully.  In these next few posts I intend to lay out how.  

"Even if good people fall seven times, they will get back up. But when trouble strikes the wicked, that's the end of them." (Proverbs 24:16)

Heavily favored, Lolo Jones held a commanding lead eight hurdles deep into a ten hurdle 100 IM race at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  She was seconds from securing a spot atop the podium.  Then she clipped the ninth hurdle.  Her speed thwarted and her rhythm off, she finished seventh.  A devastating defeat, she crumbled to the ground in tears, pounding the track in disappointment. On the biggest stage of her life, Lolo failed.

Her chance at redemption would have to wait.  Track and field athletes compete in relative obscurity with the exception of a quadrennial moment in the spotlight when the world is captivated by the Olympic Games.  As the flame was extinguished in Beijing, London was farther away in time than distance.  Jones spent four years in the shadows, striding over countless hurdles, on the track and off. A year ago she had spinal surgery, uncertain of her future as an athlete.  She poured herself into recovery and won the US Open in January.  Still her performances were inconsistent.  She placed third in the US Olympic Trials, just squeezing onto the team for the London Olympics.  Doubts persisted, memories of failure lingered.  She traveled to London as an underdog.  But she did travel to London for a second chance at a medal.

I wrote all that before the London Olympics, part of a devotional for a website early in August.  Since then, the sixteen days of the London Olympics have come and gone.  The results are in.  Lolo Jones has had her chance at redemption. In her semi-final heat, a heat in which the top two advance, she placed third.  The next two fastest times among all the heats were also given a place in the finals, and Lolo had to wait anxiously to see if she qualified.  She squeezed into the finals and then ran the best race of her season crossing the finish line fourth.  Fourth.  One tenth of a second away from a medal. 

Two days before her final, the New York Times ran a piece critical of Jones for media over-exposure unequal to her athletic accomplishments.  Leading up to the games, she had been in numerous commercials and on a number of magazine covers, including two I receive – Time and Outside.  This while Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, the two American hurdlers who qualified ahead of her, had received scant media coverage.

Jones, hurt by the criticism, responded to the article the day after her defeat in the finals on Good Morning America.  I wasn't even supposed to make the Olympic team.  The U.S. Olympic team -- they counted me out. I made the team. Then they (said), 'She's not even gonna make the final.' I made the final. I went from eighth place to fourth place. I just hope my story gives somebody hope. I didn't walk away with the medal or run away with the medal, but I think there's lessons to be learned when you win and there's lessons to be learned when you lose."

And this, I think, is why we gravitate to Lolo Jones.  Marketability is not exclusively tied to athletic achievement (though Gabby Douglas will certainly benefit immensely from the gold around her neck).  Sometimes the story we respond to is the story of perseverance and character.  I am intrigued by Jones not because she is the best, but because she perseveres through adversity.  I saw her fall in Beijing.  It impresses me that she is still at it, four years later trying for gold against all odds.  

Perfection does not inspire me as much as persistence does.  Effortless success is disheartening.  I can't relate to that.  I need to see at least a bit of struggle to validate the accomplishment. I don't speed down the track with elegance and grace. I've clipped many hurdles and stumbled toward defeat.  After such failure I need the encouragement to try again.  It helps to see Lolo Jones get back on the track.   And after finishing fourth, it is good to hear her say that there are lessons to learn when you loose.  Those are lessons I have ample opportunity to learn.  Her story gives me hope.  Standing at the finish line, gasping for breath, hands on my knees, I look to the scoreboard to see that I have come up just short of my goal.  One tenth of a second from reaching the podium.  Failure.  At that point, there are plenty of voices suggesting that I throw in the towel.  Jones invites me to get back on the track, train hard, try again.  

She says she plans to try again in Rio four year from now.  Who knows what 1400 days will hold.  Injury or age may sideline Jones from getting back to Olympic stadium.  But she is a model of persistence.  Not satisfied to just run in the Olympics, she aims to medal.  Each time she fails, she picks herself up again.  There are still more hurdles to cross.