Dan entered my life when I was 9 and heavily into my gymnastics phase. I recall being asked later, as a 12 year-old, what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A gymnast,” I responded. I actually have this written down in my curlicue handwriting of the time, so I can’t dispute it! A gymnast? For a career? You can see how deeply into the sport I was.
Dan sensed this too. His life had not taken a conventional course. He’d grown up during the Depression and had sold vegetables door to door as an 8 year-old to earn money for his family. Later, he’d lied about his age and joined the Air Force, learning to fly before he could drive. Dan never graduated from high school, but could multiply 4-digit numbers together in his head. After an Air Force career he ran a successful camping and outdoor equipment store.
Dan understood there were numerous paths to a good life, and he saw that I hadn’t learned this yet. My “all eggs in one basket” gymnastics intensity concerned him. So he drew up a plan.
After my gymnastics meets, rather than asking what went well, he’d ask what went wrong. When my routines had ended badly, he’d request a detailed description of my fall off the narrow high beam, or exactly how hard I’d landed on my purple leotard-covered bottom after the unsuccessful vault.
Then he’d respond, “Yeah, you’re right. That was a real failure. That was a good one. A memorable one. I think that one is worth some money.”
I remember my shock the first time Dan said this. I happily accepted the cash. It wasn’t much, but enough to make his point.
He explained to me that it was vital to learn how to fail. But, he clarified, he wasn’t talking about any run-of-the-mill failure. It only counted as a good failure, when you’d really tried hard for the goal, really wanted it, then failed. “Those are the ones worth money.”
As I moved out of my gymnastics phase and into a fairly intense academic experience in high school, Dan observed that it was becoming harder for me to take risks that might potentially hurt my G.P.A. He was often the sole voice reminding me it was imperative to try new things. “Remember, a good failure is worth money.”
And I did produce some good failures over the years. There was that C in calculus senior year of high school. That was painful. I accepted some money for that one. Dan’s plan didn’t end in high school, either. When I’d call home from college he would faithfully inquire, “Any good failures I should know about?”
The last time I received a failure payment was when my first professional article, based on my dissertation, was rejected by the journal I’d hoped to publish it in. I got a fairly substantial check for that one.
As the years passed, it wasn’t so much receiving the failure compensation (although honestly the cash did soften the blow), but knowing there was someone who wanted to hear about my failures, which made an impression. Dan would quickly put my current disaster into perspective, usually remind me of one of his doozies, and generally impart the message that it’s okay to discuss these things. We don’t need to hide them.
I want my kids to learn this failure lesson too. Rabbi Harold Kushner of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says people who achieve everything they set out to in life obviously have set the bar too low. And that those who are never disappointed are the real failures. Dan would have agreed.
However, I have yet to instill the payment for failure system at our house. Looking back I realize that, being a step-parent, Dan was in the perfect position to pay us for failing (as long as my mother agreed, and she did). It’s trickier for a child’s actual parent to pay them for failing.
I’m not giving up on this yet! Perhaps I’ll recruit a family friend, or maybe an aunt or uncle to play this role for my children. And if that doesn’t take, I’ll talk regularly to my kids about Dan’s influence on me in this area. Maybe we’ll create a Dan Failure Payment and give it in his honor when “a good failure” occurs.
I’m also aware that this payment plan would only work with certain types of kids. I have yet to discern which of mine would benefit from this backward reward system (though day by day it’s becoming clearer).
Not only did my stepfather’s unique way of looking at life ease the pain of my failures and teach me to learn from them, but it encouraged me to try new things. (Remind me to tell you about my bicycle trip across the U.S. with my best friend when I was 16, an adventure much supported and cheered on by Dan.)
I won’t say I’ve completely lost my fear of taking substantial risks (and failing), but I’ve gotten much better at it. You might say it’s become a skill.
Would this work in your home? Leave a comment below!