Failure is a Virtue

Many, many moons ago, I used to run cross country. I was a chunky, soft sixth grader, following after a friend who had joined up and recommended I joined too. I remember practices, every day after school, running for what felt like hours. Turns out, it was more like a half hour, followed by some other sort of cardio workout. I would jog slowly down our freshly opened new school’s walking tracks, the small white pebbles of gravel scurrying under foot to flee from my shuffle. I ran like a tiny, tired fighter, tight fists, held as if to defend from a punch to the gut, swaying back and forth in front of my chest. When it came to race days, I would always finish dead last. After fifteen times coming in last place, I’m sure the coach had no earthly idea why I even bothered to show up . Nonetheless, I kept on going. Then, in the penultimate race of the season, I was running a race in Seneca, IL, a small farming town in northern Illinois. The race trail meandered through the town, near freshly shorn corn fields, and over craggy sidewalks, mangled from overgrown tree roots. We were coming up to the last half mile. I was puffing away when I realized I had the chance to actually pass someone. I could finally make a marked achievement in my year of suffering and sweating through innumerable gym shirts I’d never take home to wash. With the finish line now in eyesight, I made my move: I pushed my chubby self just an ounce harder and passed my fellow running mate. In my head, it was an olympic feat with crowds cheering in slow motion, my opponents tripping in their grief behind me. I was victorious! I was a winner! I finally wasn’t last! I later discovered that the kid I passed was having an asthma attack and couldn’t finish. But still, one man’s asthma attack is another man’s second-to-last place finish. As an adult, I look back at that Cross Country season and am as perplexed as my running coach likely was. Why keep doing something that brought me so much frustration and failure? Why keep showing up even to practice if you know you’re not going to be the best, or hell, even place towards the middle of the pack? As confused as I am as to why that chubby kid kept on running, I am every bit as proud of him. I think that was the first time I truly learned the lesson of perseverance. I didn’t hate running, but I was decidedly bad at it; and yet I still kept going. By the end of the season, I had made some new friends, somewhat proven myself to not be a complete joke (thanks to my athematic opponent), and I improved my two mile pace to under twenty-one minutes – a feat of damn near herculean proportions, as far as I was concerned. I’m reminded of my Cross Country struggles as I recently finished the Netflix series “Nailed It!” For those of you who haven’t watched, the premise is simple: three very amateur bakers attempt to replicate two popular baking trends like cake pops, mermaid cupcakes, or a wedding cake, and invariably wind up hilariously missing the mark. It’s basically like watching Pinterest fails happen in real time, and I highly recommend it. While the show is meant to be funny and lighthearted, I really think there’s more to it than that. We all start on any journey at the beginning. Sure, there is natural talent, but anyone in any art form will tell you talent pales in comparison to tenacity. It takes work, practice, and many many failures to start producing anything show-worthy. Note that I said “show-worthy” rather than “anything of value,” because failure is the greatest teacher. When we fail, we learn. Not a soul in this world has learned any great life lessons from an easy win. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic failure to teach us the lesson that we need to learn. I look back at that twelve year old boy who finished last every single race,I see his tenacity, and I grit my teeth. We are not failures because we fail. Baking is something I have always loved, from my childhood summers at my grandmother’s house all the way up to the newest season of Jake Bakes. When I started getting serious, I took up a new recipe or technique every week for a year. Let me tell you, that first year was FULL of failures, some more epic than others. However, in failing in baking, I found something sweet -love. Love for the process, love for the ingredients, love for the people I was baking for. Sure, my first creations sometimes looked more like amorphous globs from a Stephen King novel than a croissant, but aside from a terrifying baking powder incident, they still tasted every bit as delicious. I’m still haunted by those quasi-turd like scones.

My first carrot cake in 2016

My most recent carrot cake, 2018

So many of my friends are afraid of baking or have just given up because they are self-proclaimed “terrible bakers”. Good news! Everyone is a bad baker in the beginning so you are right where you are supposed to be! It doesn’t matter that you mixed up salt with sugar, cinnamon with paprika, or flour with powdered laundry detergent. What does matter, is that you try again. Luckily, most recipes are fairly cheap to make so trying them a few times won’t hurt and I’m sure your coworkers won’t mind the extra goodies too. Even if it’s not baking, I hope you do something that you aren’t good at this week. I hope you stumble and have to learn something. I hope along the way, as I was lucky enough to experience, you learn something about yourself – something you didn’t know or maybe just needed to be reminded of. Like a husky sixth grader running with all his might, I hope you run your best race this week. Who knows, you might even surprise your family, friends, or even more importantly, yourself. Now wouldn’t that be something.