Out of danger and restless insecurity comes the force that pushes mankind to newer and loftier conquests.Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity*
I loved video games in middle school. So when the Xbox came out, I made an appeal to my parents to purchase this glorious machine. My dad, forever the teacher, told me I could have one if I figured out a way to pay for it. I came up with a scheme to use all the assorted machinery in the garage—lawnmower, leaf blower, that kind of thing—to see if I could sell my services to the neighbors. Never imagining I’d take it where I would, my parents set me off on what would become my first formal campaign to acquire clients.
At eleven or twelve years old, I wasn’t very imaginative when it comes to naming, and I was unfortunately (or fortunately, depending how you look at it) hopelessly naive. We had red white and blue bordered stationery I could use to advertise my business, so I figured the prefix would be simple: an all American operation offering lawn mowing and leaf blowing.
A few hours later, my Mom burst in the front door barely able to breathe, tears running down her face. Apparently, “All American Mow and Blow” hadn’t been a good choice for my inaugural enterprise, and you can imagine how embarrassed I was, even though I didn’t really get the problem with the name at the time. The family jokes about how I offered the entire neighborhood a $30 combo mow and blow will never stop.
When we screw up, put our foot in our mouth, and feel the heat of embarrassment rush to the face, it doesn’t feel like good work. Looking silly, making mistakes, no matter how mortifying, these things are critical to learning how to improve. I don’t know what exactly I learned from my childhood entrepreneurship fail, but because I survived it, it makes all the important failures later on, the ones that have a lot to teach me, more manageable.Those events and the stories we tell about them make me human. And they’re damn funny to look back on as our friends clutch their sides in laughter as they gasp and squeeze out, “I can’t believe you did that.”
What do Smith College, Harvard, Stanford, Penn, and Princeton have in common? They have initiatives to teach students about the universal reality of failure, why it matters, and what to do about it. On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus by Jessica Bennett is a good read about this trend, and I hope it spreads.