Friday, July 3, 2015

Permission to fail

November 1997

I stood in the hot sun looking at the rolled corn leaves and withered tassels. It seemed impossible that it was happening. For one thing, it wasn’t in my plan for the farm this year - a carefully drawn up, logically thought out roadmap of how this year was supposed to go. No mention of a drought at all.

It was my first real experience with a weather catastrophe. As a young, confident farmer I had all of five seasons under my belt and felt pretty sure I could handle whatever came down the road.
But 1980 was not like any easily remembered year. With no personal drought history, everything that happened to me that summer was new and well, horrifying. The heat was unbearable, and rains did not come. For east-central Illinois it was positively unthinkable. This was reclaimed swamp, for crying our loud!

But it did happen. The summer wore on and I wore down. I began thinking myself into corners and blind alleys where mental monsters lurked. Slowly it dawned on me. I was failing at my work.
First of all, it wasn’t fair. I work hard. I don’t do bad things. I don’t make terrible decisions or break rules. I always assumed that would be enough.

As hard as the recognition of looming disaster was, however, it was the accompanying emotion that really shocked me: I was afraid.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been afraid before. But previously those events were confined to events and physical threats, like tax audits or horses. This time the fear not only lasted, but grew.

What if I ... to put it bluntly, FAILED? I became obsessed with the idea, aghast at the possibility, and unable to see how to avoid it. Worst of all, I felt like such a weenie for being so pathetic and fearful. What was wrong with me?

One afternoon that August, my father and I were working in the feedlot when I asked him whether he had ever been through anything like this. His answer was a familiar response involving “1936 or 1934”, “eleven days over 100°”, “open-pollinated corn”, etc. - a story I had heard too many times, I thought. Then followed the gruff assurances that he’s seen worse than this and things will work out. Standard father-talk. 

Then I realized I hadn’t asked the right question. “Not the drought and crops, Dad”, I interrupted, “Were you ever afraid you were going to fail?”

He looked at me strangely for a long moment. Then for the first time in my life, he spoke in a voice of a fellow farmer rather than a father. Scanning an unseen horizon he quietly relived a powerful memory.

“Once in the 50s”, he said, “when you four kids were little, we had some kind of disease in our feeder pigs and lost darn near all of them. Since I counted on them to provide money until the beans were harvested, we soon ran out of cash.”

“One morning in August, your mother came to me and said quietly, ‘John, there isn’t any food in the house’. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was going to fail”

He turned and looked me in the eye, “It didn’t matter that the situation was not hopeless - I felt like it was. And I was afraid because I had no answers.”

He went on to tell me how things worked out, and how in retrospect that particular experience wasn’t the absolute worst in his life, just the first such, but that part of his story wasn’t what stayed with me.
By sharing the fact that he too had known the debilitating and humiliating effects of the fear of failure, my father validated my own feelings. Far from lowering my opinion of him, he rose several notches in my estimation. Such admissions are not easy to make.

My sense of relief was deep-felt. If Dad had gone through this and shared the same doubts, two logical conclusions could be drawn: 1) there wasn’t anything “wrong” with me for being afraid, and 2) it was likely that I could survive - just like he did - even though right now I wasn’t too sure exactly how.

Obviously I did. But that incident in my life changed the way I think about failure and success, and the coping with its attendant fear. I became a sort of “student of failure”, analyzing why things went wrong and studying people who had failed as well as succeeded. 

I discovered that failure is almost always worse in contemplation than actuality. It is also heavily linked to our value system that makes winning, “not just everything, but the only thing”, as Coach Lombardi put it.

In fact, one often unexamined aspect of the new fascination with “risk” is what happens when the risks win. And it happens, and will happen, I believe, more often to more farmers. Some will not fully recover from a failure of some type, at least not with their ego and confidence intact. Part of the reason is that failure is often seen as an unallowable outcome. Some performance standard or moral scale by which we measure our lives has no concession for a failure, no room for honorable defeat. Most likely this gauge is a father, or older family member.

What I got from my Dad that day was worth more than all the advice and training he had given me before. I got permission to fail, and in doing so, he gave me the greatest tool to recover from mistakes. Since then I have found this same idea embraced by others I admire.

In fact, one of my favorite quotes from Theodore Roosevelt contains these words: “...I would rather fail while daring greatly, than be numbered among the gray and timid souls who neither suffer much nor enjoy much.”

I don’t enjoy failing, of course. But at least the prospect no longer paralyzes me with fear, and that alone can avert most failure.

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