Photo of lemonsThe Incredible Value of Failure

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the saying goes.  When life gives you lemons, pay attention.

Have you failed recently? Congratulations!  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I hurt myself and said to my mother, “I wish I couldn’t feel pain.”  

My mother then told me a story of a person who couldn’t feel pain.  This person bled to death at the beach.  He hadn’t felt a cut in his foot and bled to death without noticing.  Without pain, she told me, we wouldn’t know when we were hurt.  I disagreed at the time.  She was telling me something important. 

Failure, like pain, sends us precious signals of problems that need to be corrected.  Without failure nothing of true difficulty and importance is ever achieved.

If you are hitting all bulls-eyes, you are too close to the target.

I hate to fail.  You do, too.

Failure is pain.  But when you fail, you learn.  When you learn, you get better.  When you get better, you succeed.

If you are not failing, you are staying within your comfort zone. You are not getting better.

Failure, of course, should not be pursued intentionally.  Similarly, one should not stab an ice pick into one’s thigh.  That would be dumb.  

But when failure occurs, we are being sent valuable intelligence and guidance.  

Failure is painful, sometimes very painful.

Example:  The Apollo 1 spacecraft, which never flew, used pure oxygen inside the crew cabin.  While being tested by a crew of three astronauts, an electrical short started a fire that burned abnormally rapidly in the pure oxygen atmosphere.  Astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee were killed.

Value:  Had the Apollo program proceeded with the 100% oxygen cabin atmosphere, almost certainly the same accident would have occurred in space.  There were 11 successful Apollo missions — Apollo 7 through Apollo 17 — success being defined as returning the crew safely to Earth.  Six of those flights landed men on the Moon.  Those 33 astronauts, and the Apollo program, owed a great debt to Grissom, White, and Chaffee.  

This intense example of failure was integral to one of mankind’s greatest successes of the 20th century: sending humans to another world.  The accomplishment has not been repeated.

Smaller failures and successes are still available to otherwise ordinary people.  You, too, can fail.

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate” has been attributed to the co-discoverer of DNA, Thomas J. Watson.  “But don’t overdo it,” is a corollary attributed to AstroGremlin.  Really.  Don’t overdo it.

If you fail repeatedly, in close succession, you are being sent a series of valuable messages you are likely ignoring.  If this occurs in traffic, if other drivers are honking at you or you are experiencing “near misses,” you are cruising for a bruising.  Or worse.

Failure, like pain, must be accompanied by appropriate correction.

Personal Example:  I had a professor who corrected every mistake in every essay I turned in.  Terse comments in the margins questioned the logic of my arguments and marked-up text pointed out mistakes in the sentences I had struggled so hard to write. My face would burn with embarrassment as I read the all-too-justified corrections.

Value:  That tough professor set me on a path to thinking and writing more carefully.  I remembered every edit.  Having my writing edited stung.  But the alternative was worse: living in a self-congratulatory slumber in Plato’s cave of ignorance.  I would later encounter even tougher editors.  Every time, I didn’t like it.  But I learned.  

Now I edit other people’s writing.  Before I get to the actual editing, I always write something nice like, “You have some good ideas in here.”  And then I bring down the corrections like flaming chunks of doo doo.  This is how editors show their love to writers and their love for good writing.  If you find a tough editor, treasure that person. 

What feels like failure, is not.  The real failure is to ignore the message.

Can you recall a recent failure?  

Was it just a tough break (there is a difference)?  Has it resulted in correction, or did you ignore it?  Can you cite an example of a remarkable personal success that grew out of a catastrophic failure?

Let me know you are alive and kicking.  Leave a comment!

Fear of Public Speaking

When you become conscious and afraid of being nervous when speaking to an audience, you are “feeding back” like a squawking microphone. Shift the focus to your content, only your content, your feelings are an irrelevant distraction.

fear of public speakingHumankind’s greatest fear:  Public speaking! 

I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking and used to get very nervous.  Here’s what works for me:  Become the content. 



It’s not about me.  When I think about “me” while speaking, I being to “feed back,” like an oversensitive microphone.  That creates a feedback loop: “Oh, I feel a little nervous, do they detect it?  Uh oh, now I’m really feeling it.  Yes, that quaver in my voice and hesitation were obvious!  Now I’m really nervous! How do I get out of this?!” And so on.

When a microphone squawks, it is “feeding back.”  The microphone is no longer a conduit but is allowing it’s own response to itself to amplify that response and affect the output.  The moment I find myself thinking about myself — going into “feedback mode” — I switch gears to focus on content, content, content.  My job as a speaker is not to think about how I am doing.  My job is to make the ideas coming through me as clear and as interesting as possible. 

The audience’s reaction is their business.  That also isn’t about me.  It’s about them.  The feedback loop can start there, too, if I let that affect the presentation.  If they laugh at the right places, great.  But whether or not they do, it’s about their reaction to the opportunity for a laugh.  Of course some jokes just don’t work.  But if I have tested the jokes, they are known to work, and my timing is on, it’s now in the audience’s hands.  Whether or not they applaud, it’s still not about me.  My focus is to give them the very best chance to “get it.”  When I’ve done that, I sometimes join the audience in appreciating the ideas I managed to get across.  “Hey, that was good content, wasn’t it?”

It’s like singing a song.  Here is a beautiful song.  My job is to do my best to not worry about myself or you, but to let you hear the beauty I know is there.  The experience of channeling the content can be exhilarating.  Only at the end do I allow myself the joy of success or disappointment at achieving something less.  That’s “me time.”  Whatever the outcome, I am confident it wasn’t about me “feeding back.”

This post began life as a comment on a beautifully done article on overcoming fear of public speaking by .

The Cruelty of Nature Suggests that Compassion is an Emergent Property

It’s not a pleasant topic, but we humans are in charge of the whole compassion franchise. We need to attend to the business of reducing animal suffering.

The cruelty of nature is shocking

The trials and sufferings of “wildlife” are hard to contemplate.  Deer who starve in the winter, the mouse that becomes the toy of a cat and dies in misery, the slow and painful death of animals from disease, starvation, thirst.  I won’t go on.  You either accept this premise or, perhaps justifiably, want to blindly believe that animals don’t suffer pain the way humans do.  Oh, how I wish I could believe that.  But the value of survival strongly suggests that the goad of pain, hunger, and thirst are as sharp as possible for all species.

photo of a tortoise for whom we feel compassionToday I found myself asking a neighbor, “Is this turtle yours?”

A turtle (actually a tortoise, see the first scene of Blade Runner for clarification) was walking across the street.  I avoided hitting it, but realized that if the tortoise were to stay around (and stay round!), I had to go back.  After a U-turn I saw a truck come so close that the tortoise pulled in his or her head and froze.  I got out, picked up the still-closed shell, and yelled to a grey-haired man in his yard, “Is this your turtle?”  Strangely, he knew the turtle.  “He’s not mine but roams around the neighborhood.  He was in my yard not that long ago.  I thought he was a new rock.  It’s surprising how quickly he gets around.”

“Slow and steady wins the race,” I said, handing him the tortoise, who had won the race by only a hare’s breadth.

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