Who Knew?! From "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" to "The Curse of the Capable" in One Short Decade by Erika Guy, Dean of Students
Go Figure. Now that we have managed to unlock the “secrets to success,” who would have guessed that failure would become all the rage? I’ve now read lots of them: Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a B-Minus/Blessing of a Skinned Knee; From Good to Great by Jim Collins; Henry Petroski’s Success Through Failure; and most recently, Paul Tough’s piece in the NY Times “What If The Secret To Success Is Failure?”. We have come full circle. The remedies and recipes for finding happiness via success are never in short supply. The trend most recently is toward failure being our savior and best teacher. While I don’t disagree, the impulse in all of us to simply “figure it out” may just be misguided. The premise upon which all of these surefire cures are based is that we can, in some way, control the outcome. Ha!
A little history—my dad had a unique quality that deeply distinguished him from other fathers during my childhood and beyond: he found failure amusing. The personal failings and faulty judgments that others found embarrassing and humiliating tickled him. My dad Hugo left home in Switzerland when he was 19. He narrowed to three his list of global destinations where he could live as he made his way into adulthood: Sierra Leone, Sumatra and the U.S. My grandfather, being a practical man who knew in his gut that he had little control of this wanderlust-fueled 19-year-old, made his preferences known. If Dad HAD to leave the safe confines of St.Gallen, the U.S was the lesser of three evils. My father arrived in New York City in 1927, and landed his first job. With a bit of aviation book knowledge, he became a test pilot for the Dutch aviation pioneer, Anthony Fokker. It was in the devastatingly dangerous days of early aviation that I believe his perspective on failure developed. Failure for a test pilot had teeth.
It took me a long time to put all the pieces together regarding my dad’s optimism, but I knew that my childhood was filled with countless examples of the humor my dad found in failing. When I or my siblings lamented or cried about less than spectacular performances, failed attempts to make a team or the heartbreaking dissolution of a relationship, his mantra was always “things could be worse.” He applied the same standard to his own failings. When a skunk took up residence in our garage, Dad was desperate for help (he knew nothing of skunks, a North American animal). He found someone who knew someone—a friend of a friend who had a brother whose best friend was a “skunk whisperer!?” In the depths of panic, Dad paid the man to go into the garage and assess the situation. The man returned from the garage and gravely indicated that we had an entire family of skunks living there. The fee of course went up exponentially. My father shelled out more cash and the man said he’d return in an hour to remedy the situation. He asked us all to go into the house as he went into the garage with all manner of armor. When he emerged, he indicated that we simply needed to wait 24 hours and all would be well. My Dad paid the man and he left. The next day, we all went into the garage. The only indication that the skunk whisperer had been there was a large galvanized metal “skunk trap” (a handwritten sign clued us in). The money was gone, the man was gone, the skunks weren’t. Most fathers would have exploded in anger. Not my dad. He couldn’t stop laughing and for years afterward the absurdity of the “galvanized skunk trap” became the punchline to many stories.
Moral of the story: Wouldn’t we all be a bit saner and happier if we just took life as it came, embraced the great moments, pushed through the tough times, laughed at our missteps and acknowledged that we have very little, if any control?
Thanks for reading.