Friday, January 01, 2010

Been There, Failed That

Sometimes failure can be a powerful source of comfort. Not so much for the person failing, but for all of their friends, acquaintances, or even anonymous observers. One place I have noticed this is in meetings. When I just can't follow what is going on, and I have to stop everything to ask for an explanation, I almost always see relief on some of the faces in the room. Maybe they too needed help to understand, or maybe they are just enjoying seeing how dense I am. Either way, I have contributed to their sense of well being.

As a young engineer, I dreaded making presentations to audiences that were either large or full of people to whom I was a peon. However, one day I was standing near my boss's boss when he was called upon to address a large room full of people. I was close enough to see his face twitch a bit. I could hear a small tremor in his voice. I saw that deer in the headlight look in his eyes. Once I realized he was nervous, I could have decided that it simply proved that I was right to be afraid of speaking to groups. I had often thought that way. This time I was struck by a new idea: if he is two levels up ladder, 15 years more experienced, and still quaking about sharing a few words, then it is no big deal if I suffer that same anxiety. That epiphany occurred 35 years ago, yet I remember it vividly. It has helped me countless times.

I made sure I shared lots of my failures with my kids. I knew they would eventually learn that I was fallible, even if I tried to hide it from them, but I really enjoyed giving them advance notice. Sometimes I blushed when they laughed heartily at my shortcomings, but my shame was only momentary. It was soon supplanted by the warm glow of knowing that they had just been freed to make a few mistakes themselves without undue worry.

False humility drains failure of much of its value. I mustn't pretend that I always fail. I don't. Very likely some of my successes have inspired others. I too enjoy seeing someone surmount a challenge.

Seeing others both fail and succeed allows me to see them in depth. I am far more able to identify with them. We share a common plight.

I hope we can all find the courage to showcase at least a few of our failures. It will make the world a better place.
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