The courage 
to fail

One night in the year 1867, a young telegraph operator was whiling away the graveyard shift in Louisville, Kentucky, preoccupying himself with the workings of a lead-acid battery. The curious tinkerer accidently spilled sulfuric acid; the corrosive liquid flowed between the floorboards and into the room below, dripping precisely on top of his boss’s desk. The next morning, he was fired.

More than three decades later, a friend called on the same man for a visit. The man was found working at a laboratory table covered with hundreds of little models of battery components — he had never gotten over his obsession. Learning that the man had made more than 9,000 experiments with the battery, without producing a single answer to his questions, the friend asked, “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous work you have done, you haven’t been able to get any results?”

Thomas Edison smiled and replied, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

Edison’s ultimately successful design of the rechargeable nickel-iron battery, which numbers among his more than 1,000 patented inventions, is still used in manufacturing today.

The stories of the most successful people in history, in all fields, abound with anecdotes of failures.

There is a value hidden in failure, which in the presence of the proper attitude can serve to guide and motivate, rather than dishearten. It is the crucible in which one is tested and made ready to succeed.

Here in the Cayman Islands, we often mitigate the consequences of failure, dismiss its reality or, worst of all, refrain from venturing into scenarios where failure is a possibility.

This cultural mentality generates vast quantities of cheap trophies, participation ribbons and universally shared first-place honors. What it does not produce is meaningful results, in the way that Edison conceived.

When you’re never allowed to lose, you’re never allowed to win, either.

Particularly, Cayman’s public schools, and our students, have been debilitated by this gentle form of nihilism and its accompanying policies of social promotion and “student-centered learning” (as opposed to performance-based results). The outcomes are diplomas for all, far too many graduates who are unaware of the limits of their own knowledge, and an educational ministry headed by officials too paralyzed with fear of failure to bring about positive transformative change.

The no-losing/no-winning philosophy is the rule in Cayman, but fortunately there are exceptions.
Caymanian boxer Tafari Ebanks recently competed in the bantamweight category at the XX Commonwealth Games as part of our national delegation of 26 athletes.

Ebanks, 20, suffered defeat in the quarterfinals of his event, losing out on at least a bronze medial via a close, but clear, decision to a 29-year-old Kenyan police officer who had won silver in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Instead of making excuses or complaints, Ebanks said after the fight, “I lost but I know I could have done better within myself. I got a lot to think about.”

National boxing coach Norman Wilson was equally non-deflective, “It’s him. See, if you know how to do everything and get in the ring and don’t do it, we can’t say it’s your jab or your guard; it’s you.
You have to have that desire to be able to say, ‘I’m going to win.’ You got to know how to win.
Winning isn’t just getting in the ring, looking pretty, moving pretty. You got to fight.”

Tough words, perhaps. But boxing is a tough sport with tough people, including Ebanks, and underlying Coach Wilson’s comments is a confidence in the abilities and potential of his boxer, whose aspirations are Olympic in nature.

As a whole, Cayman could stand some toughening up, so that we can focus on pursuing success rather than preventing defeat.

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