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Life as Performance Art

    Don, whose last name I have forgotten, had been a career, a Drill Instructor on Paris Island, and finally hung up his hat after thirty years. Too young to sit around at home or drink too much at the VFW Hall, he took a job as the “maintenance guy” at the place where I had my first summer job back in my high school days. The general plan was that he was in charge and I was suppose to help him, primarily doing what I was told.  Suffice it to note that we did not have a warm and fuzzy relationship from the first minute in late May until the end of August.  The first morning he looked me up and down, snarled, “Even the Army wouldn’t have you.” 
    By noon he had given me a new name: “Dumber than dirt.”  In his opinion, I couldn’t do anything right. “Hey, Dumber than Dirt, you call that sweeping a floor?  Do it again.”   “That’s not how you wash windows. Vertical motion on the outside; horizontal on the inside. That way you know where the streaks are. You’re dumber than dirt.”
    I think he was surprised that I came back to work the second day, then the second week, and the second month. By the end of summer things were no better, but he grudgingly accepted the fact that I had learned a few useful skills. Then on the last day, Don sat me down and explained. “I’ve ridden you hard all summer for a reason. You got paid for working, but you got the life lessons for free. Not everyone is as nice as I am.”
     I can’t imagine any company letting a man like Don remain as their employee. He would single-handedly have kept the people in Human Resources fully employed, dealing with a long string of complaints and charges.   It wasn’t a pleasant summer, but I am very thankful that I worked with him when I did.  I learned plenty.
    There was something about his convoluted logic that made sense.  He was preparing me, maybe immunizing me, for what we often call Real Life.  A few years later at his funeral I learned that he’d grown up in the Depression and had to drop out of school at the end of the eighth grade to help support his family. During the Korean War he’d been drafted and decided to stay in the Marine Corp.  He’d had a hard life, made something of himself, and as a veteran was passing all this knowledge from the College of Hard Knocks on to younger men.  At the reception I introduced myself to his widow and mentioned his nickname for me. “Oh, don’t let it bother you, he called everyone that. He wasn’t good at remembering names.”
      It took a while, but I finally figured out what he meant by those free life lessons.  We all fall short or fail, and sometimes plant our face smack into a warm pile of barnyard organic fertilizer; it’s what we do next that matters.  We can quit and go home. We can get angry and stupidly take a swipe at a recently retired Marine sergeant and probably land right back in the afore-mentioned fertilizer. Or we can learn one of Don’s lessons. Rule One: Failure is an important part of life.  Rule Two: Don’t keep repeating the same mistakes when there are new ones to make.
    Most of us don’t like failure, especially when it is our own failure.  That’s fine. Failure isn’t meant to be fun. We are supposed to learn from it.  The real danger is to fear failure or making a mistake that we emotionally freeze, and then we quit and go home.  That is why we don’t laugh at someone else’s failure.  Or at least we shouldn’t laugh.  Since we all fail from time to time, I find it interesting that business schools put all their emphasis on success, but don’t seem to bring up the topic of failure.
     Failure can be important for us.  Once Thomas Edison had successfully invented the light bulb, someone asked him how many attempts it took. Edison quoted a number, and the man was astounded. “You had THAT many failures?”  he asked. “No,” said Edison, “I succeeded in finding all those ways that do not work.”
    My brother-in-law, who was an engineer for General Electric before he retired, was very familiar with failures.  The basic drill was that someone had an idea, and a team worked on it to develop a plan. The engineers and machine shop crowd built it, and it didn’t work.  Since no one wanted to take the blame, the company would say, “Well, it must have been a system failure.”
     I have occasionally heard the same message from physicians and other medico when a patient dies. They sometimes say, “Their body (system, really) shut down.”
    We will come back to failure in a paragraph or two.
    Meanwhile, the other entity we fear is success.  That seems weird, because we all want to feel successful, as well as be recognized for our achievements.  Even so, fear of success is very real for a number of reasons.  If we succeed, others might not like it and be jealous.  A Navy Chief Petty Officer once said that he had sailors turn down a possible promotion because the folks back home would think he was trying to show off.  Or, if we succeed, we might have to do something even bigger or better, and therefore more challenging the next time. Otherwise, we will be lumped in the heap with all the other one-hit-wonders.  In short, we are uncertain what we are supposed to do if we succeed.  Some people find it impossible to deal with success. They decide it is better to avoid it.
    Sometimes people are their own worst enemy, “shooting themselves in the foot” as we sometimes call it, because they don’t want to fail or succeed too much.  They want to be in the middle of the herd, always just getting by, but avoiding both extremes.
     I find myself thinking about my own demise, that failure of my system, far more than I did in my 20s. It is not something that holds much appeal, even though it is inevitable. Soon or later some serious looking doctor is going to say, “Sit down, we need to talk.”   I don’t know the specific topic, but it is likely going to be an organ recital of a system that is failing.
     We cannot avoid the inevitable, but neither do we have to surrender before our time.  Between now and the moment we “fall off our perch” we can commit ourselves to making every part of life a personal success story. It doesn’t matter whether it is washing windows or building the device that will halt global warming. We start looking for successes in our life because that is what matters.

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