About twenty years ago a co-worker of mine named Amada Doyle Giordano put a small paperweight on her desk. It read, What Would You Do If You Knew You Couldn’t Fail? It stared a hole in me every time I walked in her office. That paperweight was the daily reminder that I needed to think bigger, take more risk, and dare to fail. You could say that a small paperweight dramatically altered the course of my life.
And that, my friends, is where the story begins.
I’ve thought a lot about that small, pewter paperweight over the years. I can still see it clear as day in my head. In fact, thanks to the power of the interwebs I found an exact replica.
The Speed of Life
Life has been speeding up over the past few years. We’ve become increasingly impatient and demanding. But it’s not our fault.
The interwebs and the smartphone have changed everything.
Touch an app and a car shows up in minutes to whisk us away.
Touch an app and non-GMO, gluten-free, vegetarian meal shows up at our door.
Touch an app and Amazon delivers light bulbs on the same day.
With that kind of immediate gratification, why would we want to wait….for anything…..ever?
It’s simply harder to have the patience to learn new things. To chase our dreams. And, perhaps our transparent Instagram lives make taking risk that much more, well, risky. Cause who wants to fail publicly and risk the shame of the interwebs. It’s much easier to play it safe and avoid the possibility of failure and public humiliation.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece based on the best-selling book, Top Five Regrets of the Dying. I wrote:
As you might imagine, clarity comes easy when time is short. People begin to realize that some of their dreams will go unfulfilled. Sorta like when you finally realize that you aren’t gonna be President of the United States or climb Mt. Everest or race in the Kona Ironman. Except those decisions have, at least, some measure of choice in them.
The author, Bronnie Ware, supposes that the average person “had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.” Heavy stuff.
We tend to avoid risk. See, we all remember that one time early in life when we took inordinate risk. We tried out for the basketball team or the cheerleading squad or the debate team. And we failed miserably. For one moment the eyes of the entire planet were upon us-when we just wanted to crawl under a rock and die. And, that one experience scarred us for life.
For many of us, that one failure stays with us. We avoid risk like a dog avoids broccoli. But, as we age our tolerance for risk goes up.
According to Dr. Gene Cohen, author of The Mature Mind, “age can bring a new feeling of inner freedom, self-confidence and liberation from social constraints that allow for novel or bold behavior.”
Don’t you think we need more liberation and bold behavior in our lives? I do.
Parker Palmer is the author of On the Brink of Everything. He writes, “with age comes the ability to accept your successes, failures and shortcomings. Owning all the events of your life grants you the “grace of wholeness.” You no longer equate wholeness with perfection. You find value in the wrong turns and detours of your life’s journey.”
Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good.
Parker J. Palmer On the Brink of Everything
Talent v. Skills
At a certain age we learn the difference between talent and skills.
Talent is on loan from God. But, skills can be learned by anyone. You need not have the former to exercise the latter. And, that understanding can lead to an enormous amount of joy.
I can’t believe that we would
Lie in our graves
Dreaming of things that we
Might have been….
At some point Competitive Eating legend, Joey Chestnut realized he had a talent for eating hot dogs. He just joined the Guinness Book of World Records by downing 75 dogs (w/buns) in ten minutes. Click here to watch full video.
As I like to say, “I have no talent, but I’m eminently coachable.” And, thanks to that small paperweight, I’m no longer afraid of failure. I think I could take Joey Chestnut down if I trained hard enough.
As a result of that kind of confidence, I have a closet of broken dreams just for my failures. It’s the closet in our home containing all of the things I’ve tried….and failed. Or simply given up.
Sure the closet of broken dreams gets more crowded with the passing years. But, hey, did I really need to learn to play the acoustic guitar, or learn to paint or make hoppy micro-brew in the garage? Did I need to try acting? Or appear as the only white dude in a television pilot with an entirely African American cast?
But, I made some new friends and my life is richer for having tried-and failed. And I will continue to try new things and probably fail at most of them. So what?
Your life’s mosaic is not intended to be the artistic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit. It’s the richness of new experiences that keeps us young and vibrant.
You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
One of the reasons we do not try new things is fear. See, the world is pretty darn judgmental. And, we humans do not like to be judged. Ever.
As food critic Anton Ego opined in the movie Ratatouille, “the world is often unkind to new talent; new creations.”
We need to abandon our fear and anxiety. As Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened”.
As Leo Babauta wrote recently, “The edge of uncertainty and chaos is where we learn, grow, create, lead, make incredible art and new inventions. The edge of uncertainty is where we explore, go on adventures, get curious, and reinvent ourselves.”
I found four examples of people who embraced a little uncertainty unleashed hidden talents on the world.
Check out my friend Richard Sheffield, who tried his hand at painting at age 51. And after a few months of developing his skills, look at the art that flowed out of him. Amazing.
Or my friend, Eric Busko, who tried his hand at baking and busted out this birthday cake. Yes, it’s all edible.
Or my friend, Andrea B. Jones who started an amazing travel blog after taking a photography course at night.
Or my wife, Mary Katherine, who took up flower arranging-just for fun. She refuses any payment and only does flowers for people she loves.
Those paintings and cakes and music and photographs and floral arrangements bring joy to others. Imagine not unleashing that talent on the world because you were afraid of failing.
So before it’s too late, let’s get on the other side of fear. Let’s dig deep and find that raw talent. Or, even better, let’s find we have no talent but an extraordinary desire to learn new skills. Either one is fine.
And, let’s broaden our horizons and see what joy we can unleash on the world together. After all, if a paperweight can change my life, just imagine what your raw talent and mad skills can do for the world.
And that, my friends, is where the story ends.
Previously Published on tomgreene.com