A beach trip, with a note on failure
For Memorial Day, we took Clara on her first road trip out to Jane and Keith’s beach place. I enjoyed the drive. We came over the bridge towards Nags Head just as the sun was setting. The Outer Banks are not Monte Carlo. It’s not about glamor. But the area can induce serenity and happiness. Traffic on the island moved slowly, and we sampled the local radio stations — a fundamentalist preacher, 80s rock, country, and my favorite, hip hop. It was good at last to see Corolla again.
Keith is a grill chef extraordinaire, and for our benefit volunteered to go all vegetarian for the weekend. Having recently mastered gluten-free cooking, he seemed to appreciate the challenge, like a high jumper who wants to go higher. He made waffles with fruit and honey whip cream for breakfast. Delicious! A tomato cucumber soup with hot cheese pie for lunch. Scrumptious! Stuffed peppers and corn flan. Extraordinary! He tried a rich chocolate torte, which he judged too dry and threw out. The second effort was a great success.
We went to the beach in the afternoon, Sally donned a wet suit and swam with my niece Kylie and nephew David. I piloted a kite for a bit before it crashed, and I reread a bit of Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, the incredible story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica, which was a failure in terms of its original mission, but a success in terms of its plan B — survival. It’s nice to a frigid, desperate story and a sunny beach.
David, 10, is mad for lacrosse, and insisted while we were on the beach I learn something about it. He let me use the shorter stick. Under his intense coaching, I managed to make some catches and throws, and was pleased. I also missed some catches and made some bad throws, which was less fun. But I persisted for a while, even with little expectation of ever being any good, partly to humor David, and partly to continue road testing my theory of failure.
It’s this: greater acceptance of failure increases the possibilities for happiness. Part of the reason is that we learn from failure. In any new endeavor, we start out incompetent, so we make mistakes, and if we persist we gradually work out how to make fewer mistakes. Every significant accomplishment (apart from the occasional stroke of pure luck) is the result of many failures.
But there’s a broader reason for greater tolerance for failure. Clearly, failure does not always lead to success. Most of the things we could try will not turn out well, because no one can be good at everything. But if we decline to accept our own failure, we narrow our range of experience. I might have missed lacrosse, or skiing, or Liszt. If we give ourselves permission to fail, we can try new things, and be happier.