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.