It was quite a productive afternoon. I finished a column and filed it hours before the deadline. I watched the NY Yankees get what was coming to them. We welcomed a good old friend from St. Joseph. I remembered a doctor’s appointment and even got there on time. These were the only four things I knew I had to do. In recent weeks I have been forgetting to do even what was on my desk calendar. Wendy never forgets anything because every morning she writes out her schedule for the day. She has often suggested I do the same. I would follow her advice, except I often forget.
But back to the four things I got done. If I were playing baseball and went four for four I would be batting 1000 for the day. If I had gone to bat ten times and struck out the other six, I would still be hitting .400 which is an almost an unheard of season’s average in the major leagues. Ted Williams did it in1941 hitting .406, and no one has done it since.
But change the activity from hitting a baseball to walking on a high wire from one skyscraper to another. No matter how many times you attempt that feat, the first time you don’t succeed will be the last time you even made an attempt. .400 may be a super batting average, but .900 in walking a high wire is a guarantee you will never get another chance.
Most of the things we try will be either like hitting a baseball or walking a high wire, and knowing which category is an essential prerequisite. Misidentifying the category is a ready-made disaster.
The notion that every activity demands perfection is a built-in guarantee of failure. My guess is that every successful invention was preceded by a long list of failures. Nothing worth doing probably made it on the first try. I recently had a conversation with a colleague who wanted to emerge as a superior watercolor artist. I had this same conversation with him ten years ago! His fear of failure kept him from making a single attempt for at least a decade. He might never have become a superior artist — but neither he nor I will ever know. But then nothing is worth doing that is not worth doing badly.
I admire every person who runs for political office even if they lose, only to pick themselves up and try again. My name appeared on a municipal ballot four times. On three of those times, I was the successful candidate. But I learned more during the time I was defeated then in my three winning campaigns combined. Let me introduce you to what may be life’s greatest teacher. Her name is failure.
When I was eight years old, I picked out my life’s work. I was going to be the world’s greatest musician as conductor of an outstanding Philharmonic Orchestra. I got the idea when our third-grade teacher played a record of the Beethoven 5th and handed me a stick with the invitation to conduct while the record played. There it was — settled for life. The only problem was I didn’t know one instrument from another or one note from another. I had to start somewhere and so I began with a Tonette. From then on it was just a matter of deciding on the right instrument. Next came the violin — too complicated. The piano was too ordinary. Then came the trumpet, to which my mother violently objected. The drums never made it past the front door. The guitar was only tolerated. The trombone got no one’s approval.
Victory arrived in the smallest possible case. THE FLUTE! And I had found just the right teacher. He was the husband of my church’s organist and the flute chair of the National Philharmonic Orchestra. He struggled with me for two agonizing years. I was determined to win and was practicing about 9:30 one evening when all was interrupted by a loud knock on the front door. I responded and was confronted by two embarrassed police officers.
“Sorry to bother you,” spoke up the first, “but there has been a complaint about … the saxophone …” After two years, my delicate flute sounded like a Saxophone. So I chuckled, put the flute in its box, and put the box on a closet shelf where it remained untouched until it graciously disappeared. Thus ended the dream … almost. You see, what remained was a ravenous love of good music, beginning with Beethoven. So Wendy and I for the past 16 years have occupied the same seats eight Sunday afternoons a year in Disney Hall, facing the Philharmonic’s conductor, who when I squint, looks strangely familiar.