Failure is the most important experience anyone can have in their life. I do not feel that this is an exaggeration.
And on this topic, I have to tell a Boy Scouts story.
I was in a troop of which I was the oldest member because we had started it when I was in fifth grade. About a year into being in the troop, I and my Boy Scout cohorts were about 13 years old and we had been camping for a few years. We could now set up a camp site by ourselves, cook all our meals (whether they were edible was debatable), and have fun doing it. But we were responsible for planning everything about the campout. We planned our meals, did the shopping, organized activities, packed our gear, and performed all the maintenance on our equipment. We even taught the younger boys how to camp. We were responsible for everything except driving, we were too young to drive.
Our Scoutmaster, I’ll call him Mr. G, had given us all these skills but now that we had them, the real learning would begin.
Thinking back on it, I still cannot quite believe that some of us were 12 years old and yet this Scoutmaster trusted us to do all the planning for a whole weekend of camping. Had I been in his shoes, I would have been too worried that the boys would take all the food money and buy 20 pounds of candy! Or worse!!
But that was the point. I won’t go so far as to say Mr. G wanted us to fail but he definitely was putting us in a position to learn if we happened to not succeed. Because we were young, we were surrounded by parents and adults poking and prodding us so we would stay on the correct paths and get straight A’s. But Mr. G put us into situations where there was neither poking nor prodding.
One of the most pivotal points of my life was on an early campout when my patrol had forgotten to pack our frying pan. We had nothing to cook on and thus a dozen raw eggs were sitting uselessly in their carton on a cold, hungry morning in February.
As the Patrol Leader and as a 13 year old boy, I knew the solution to this problem: ask the adults what to do.
So I marched through the woods to where the adults were camping, expecting to retrieve an extra frying pan and return to my patrol a hero. But when I explained our situation, Mr. G simply said “Well, that is a predicament; what are you going to do?” He hadn’t helped me at all! When I said I didn’t know what to do he just said “Well you might want to use your resources. Is there anything else I can help you with?” He was a king of coded messages, we used to call them Jedi mind tricks.
I left the adult’s camp site, not as a hero, but as someone who needed to figure out how to solve his own problems.
I eventually decoded the mind trick and we asked to share a frying pan with one of the other patrols. The solution seems very simple to me now but at that age, I just knew we were stuck in the woods without a frying pan so I ran to the parents for help.
Mr. G did not create camping scenarios in which we would have fun (although we did have fun!) He created scenarios in which we could fail. And in doing that, he gave us the greatest gift we could have received. Only if someone’s life was threatened would he step in.
When I was much older, he once told me he watched a patrol burn an entire skillet of pancakes because if he had just stopped them, they would never have learned to keep an eye on their food while they cooked. But he and I both knew the lesson that they were learning (and that I had learned) went way beyond culinary skills.
To this day, I value failure above all else. Ok, to be fair, I do need to succeed because I need a job and I need money. But every success I have can be traced back through a series of failures that made me a better person and ultimately enabled me to succeed. They are called failures but I don’t believe we ever fail, we simply learn.
Being the backpacker I am, I prefer this metaphor to the typical idea of failure (excuse the cheesiness of it): Many mountains we climb have a lot of valleys and pitfalls along the way, but valleys and pitfalls can be just as beautiful as mountain tops.