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Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Aftermath

Late yesterday evening, I took this picture of "our spot" on Rehoboth Beach. It's at the very end of the Boardwalk, near the breaker.

We like it there because parking is generally better and it isn't as crowded, yet we're a short walk from Thrasher's French Fries and Grotto's Pizza. (Now you will understand our definition of 'A Great Day at The Beach'.)

I'm amazed at the erosion of beach sand. The Boardwalk is gone, and there are stacks of wood everywhere, covered by piles of snow and surrounded by trucks and fork lifts and back hoes and other equipment.

The construction was scheduled to be completed by mid-March. That's not going to happen. Hopefully, it will be completed before Memorial Day weekend - the first big weekend marking the beginning of the Summer Season - a very important time for everyone who makes their living in "The Nation's Summer Playground".

I love to take long walks by the ocean - it helps me sort through my thoughts and emotions. One of our daughters will be starting a new position soon and met with the Board of Directors. One of them asked her a question which startled her. She had written to tell me of it and to work through some of its implications.

I had been working on how to respond to her. Walking in the aftermath of the storm seemed an even more appropriate venue to sort out an answer.

It was too cold to walk for very long on the beach. The wind was pretty strong. I felt as if I were being slapped across the face and body by a whip made of icy wire. So, I took the question posed by one of our daughters to my morning walk/run.

The man who posed the question is in the top twenty of the wealthiest people in America. Apparently, people like to point out that status about him. Perhaps that helps to put this situation into context.

As the group assembled around the board room table, he opened the conversation by asking, "What are the 10 biggest failures you've had in life?" She was stunned by the question and, somewhat reluctant to respond to it at her very first meeting with her new board said, "Gee, I don't know. I'll have to think about that."

The man responded in obvious shock. "You don't know what your 10 biggest failures are?" he thundered. "Why, I keep a card listing the 10 biggest failures I've made in my life taped to the mirror in my bathroom and I read them every morning."

Later, our daughter asked, "What do you make of his question? What was he asking, really? What would you say are your 10 biggest failures?"

I'll talk with our daughter on my ride home this afternoon. Here's some of what I plan to say.

I suppose this man, one of the wealthiest in the country, delights to talk about his failures in public. It may send one of several messages -

See? I may be rich but I'm human.

Or: See? I may be rich but I'm humble enough to admit my mistakes.

Or: See? I may be rich, but you can be too if you learn from your mistakes.

None of those things are bad. Indeed, I hear an obviously very successful man sending out a message that success is often born of lots of failed attempts. And, that it's okay.

In fact, I applaud him for his humility - although I think it may raise a spiritual question or two about the humility of a wealthy man who needs to be reminded about his failure every morning and to let people know that he does. Sounds like there may be some anxiety lurking just under that humility.

Which is also understandable. It's one thing to become one among the top 20 wealthiest men in the country. It's quite another to maintain that lofty status.

I remember my very first management position at a hospital. At the end of the year budget report, I discovered that I was $10,000 over budget. That made no sense to me. I had been on budget every month. Where had that $10,000 gone?

I was worried sick and deeply embarrassed as I walked into a meeting with the VP of my department. I fretfully told him of my situation and died a little bit when a deep furrow crossed his brow. He got up from behind his desk and went over to the window and stared out across the parking lot.

I was certain, when he turned to come back to his desk, that he was going to tell me that I was fired. I can still hear the grandfather clock in the corner of his office, ticking away each painful, long second he was at that window.

Finally, he sat down at his desk, looked at me kindly and said, "Well, if you are making mistakes, I guess I know you are working. You can't make a mistake if you're not working."

I sighed a deep sigh of relief as he said, "Let's go over those figures again."

Turns out, I had put a decimal point in the wrong place. The budget balanced perfectly. I've long since forgotten the exact nature of my mistake, by I'll never, ever forget his kindness and generosity.

I learned something about myself in that moment, but I learned more about how to be a good manager - a good person. That there is always more to the story than what's on paper. That you have to go behind and underneath what's on paper to find the truth. That there is more value in human relationships than monetary failures. That success is often built on failure because there are always lessons to be learned from the failures.

That's part of the value of human work and human lives.

Those were critically important lessons that have stayed with me and guided me in my professional and personal life.

I plan to tell our daughter about my mistake - certainly not the biggest professional mistake I've ever made, but one that taught me one of the greatest lessons.

And, I think, that's the point.

I don't think anything is gained by listing your 10 biggest failures on a card and taping it to your bathroom mirror so that you can look at it as you start your day.

I do think it's an important exercise to look over your 10 biggest failures and write down the lesson or lessons you have learned from each one.

I think beginning each day with a reminder of what is important is more important than being reminded of your failures - unless, of course, your nature is such that you need a daily lesson in humility.

In the aftermath of the storms of life, it is important to take stock of your situation and learn the lessons you probably couldn't have learned any other way.

The "Blizzard of 2010" has renewed my respect for Mother Nature. I've learned that, if you are going to live close to the water, it's not enough to be awed by its beauty. You've got to be prepared to be humbled by its power.

Years ago, when we first bought Llangollen, someone gave me one of those 'beachy' signs as a house warming present which I keep in my bathroom. It says,
"If you're lucky enough to live near the water, you're lucky enough."
I feel blessed to be near one of God's creations that always affords me the possibility of learning new things about the majesty of God's power and abundant grace and the miracle of the constant renewal of life.

It is here that I learn deeper meaning to the words of the Psalmist,
"Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Be still, and know that I am God;"
I plan to tell my daughter that there are blessings to be gained from the aftermath of failure, so not to be afraid of failing. A wise person will not dwell on the failure, but look for the blessing. A wealthy person will count those blessings among her greatest treasures.

Indeed, I think that's the best definition of success.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wow, this is the week for posing hard questions, isn't it?

I really really like how you thought through that one.

I often think about how my ten biggest failures might not have even been revealed to me. It is simply not possible to have looked down a microscope for almost two decades and not made a mistake that was never discovered, that shortened someone's life or caused them to suffer from the "wrong treatment." I know my mistakes are buried in little paraffin tissue blocks in the file room, and some may never come to light until the day I stand face to face with God.

I believe with all my heart that will be part of the "all will be revealed" at the moment of my physical death...and everyone will have their own version of it. Yet God loves us anyway.

Oddly enough, that both scares me and comforts me. Scares because I am not going to want to hear it. Comforts because I am grateful to at least been given a "heads up" on it in this world. I am grateful to be given the chance to be aware and mindful.

Ann said...

Weird guy - is what I think -- another power trip - not only am I rich and successful -- I am also the best at failure--- I don't think I would last long in his employ-- I would be laughing at him for clinging to his top ten failures. Playing games with people -- the thing only the powerful can do in this way. The un-powerful have the trickster for their games. (Like Jacob, Loki, etc)
But yes to all the beach images -- why the ocean is the best metaphor for God that I know - the peace and the power. LIfe and death.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Good observation, Ann. "Even the best at failure". I'll share that insight with my daughter.

Love, love LURVE the ocean.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I hear this: "See? I may be rich, but you can lift yourself by your hair and be like me!"

Which never is what Life is about...

But, the Ocean! the Ocean!

susankay said...

When I was first starting contemplative prayer, I found the time I was "best" at it (not a profitable judgment, but I was young) was walking the length of Crane Beach -- my "mantra" was looking for sand dollars.

And I'm afraid I agree with Ann. I think the guy was being "in your face" with his failure list.

(secret word is parry)

Bill said...

His eleventh biggest failure seems to be a warm personality. He's a power tripper. It's all about him and where he is.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, his biggest failure is not realizing that today is a new day. Do not worry about the failures of yesterday. Live in the present. Mistake #11.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I'm with Ann, there. "I have failed better than you."

Well, if he has them taped to the mirror, no, he hasn't.

There's "real humility" and "narcissistic humility." He's of the latter variety.

Malinda said...

thank you - just last week I learned that one who taught me many important lessons about treating people with respect and love had died suddenly and I have grieved for him so - your thoughts help me in the ups and downs of tears and memories.

textjunkie said...

hmm. On the one hand, there's a standard interview technique that asks a prospective employee what their weaknesses are, and the job interviewee is supposed to be prepared for that question. It's not quite the same as "your 10 top failures" but it would be the beginning of a fallback answer (rather than, "Huh, I've never thought about it"). Certainly a job interviewee should have some idea of their strengths and weaknesses, and why, and be ready to roll with that.

I mean, yeah, from the way you tell the story the fellow seems not to consider that other people may live life differently than he does. But be that as it may, he's the interviewer and wants to know whether she is at all self-reflective or shows any judgment.

But if someone asked me what my top 10 failures were, I'd have to say, I don't know, and I can't possibly know. I can know what some of my more spectacular failures are, but to know which really had the worst long-term fall-out, affected the most people the worst way--I'd have to be omniscient. I'm pretty sure Joseph sitting in the bottom of that well thought he'd goofed up pretty badly, but I'm not sure God saw it the same way, and in the long run it wasn't so bad after all. I have yet to know what failures will be redeemed, and I certainly don't know what successes will turn to ashes in my mouth when the full story is known. The best I can hope for is to make an assessment of what went wrong, how it went wrong, whether I was wrong in my goals, and how to do better next time on the assumption that I am correct, it did go wrong and was a failure.

Which is one of my strengths--that I can reserve judgment and be prepared for more information to show up that might change my mind--but is also one of my weaknesses, that I can appear indecisive.

See? :)