Both of my kids had a kindergarten teacher who wore long, flowy clothes, displayed her artwork in local venues, and understood the value of errors. Any time she got caught misspelling a word or writing the wrong time for music class on the daily schedule, she would smile broadly and exclaim, “Hooray, I made a mistake! Now I have a chance to learn something!”
This wasn’t just a face-saving maneuver but a lesson for the pressured, perfectionist kids she taught at the hoity toity private school. Those children did not take their own mistakes lightly, no matter how small. It was a deliberate part of her curriculum to encourage them to relax and even welcome the occasional misstep.
I’ve been thinking about that kindergarten teacher while contemplating the concept of failure. And then I forgot about it for a while because I was immersed in reading Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of an ill-fated 1996 expedition to the top of Mount Everest. It turned out to be related, though, because the many deaths that resulted from that summit attempt were caused by a chain of mistakes, some big, some small, made by multiple individuals with a complicated web of motivations and concerns, some of whom were severely impaired by cold, exhaustion, and high-altitude oxygen deprivation at the time they committed their particular errors.
Arguably, the biggest mistake was made by everyone involved, because climbing up a gigantic heap of unstable rock and ice to damn near 30,000 feet, also known as “the cruising altitude of airplanes,” is flat-out insane. The death of climbers on Everest is so common that climbers step over the frozen bodies on their way up. No, really, I’m not making that up. It’s so hard and dangerous to get up and down the mountain that no one would even consider trying to bring a dead comrade’s body down. So there they are.
Even more mind-boggling (to a sane person like me with a totally justified fear of heights who doesn’t even like to climb up the ladder to the attic), people who show up on Everest want so much, so very, very much, to get to the very tippy top of that mountain that for some of them, all concern for their own lives and the lives of others gets shoved aside if it gets in the way of their (utterly pointless, in my sane opinion) goal. For example, Krakauer describes a group of climbers on their way up encountering a group of climbers on their way down. The group coming down was exhausted, struggling, and clearly in life-threatening trouble. Yet no assistance of any kind was offered, because helping the other climbers would prevent them from reaching the summit themselves. And that was after the major disaster that took the lives of several of Krakauer’s climbing companions.
So I actually felt better about my own mistakes and chains of mistakes that ultimately turned into failures because even though I’ve done some dumb damn things and compounded those errors with ever more idiocy, sometimes for years on end, at least I have all my life had the sense to remain close to sea level at all times.
Interestingly, Krakauer discusses the notion of learning from one’s (or someone else’s) mistakes and concludes that even though he describes in vivid detail the incredible difficulty and danger of the ascent, the mistakes made by expert, professional climbers, the mistakes made by the non-expert climbers who should’ve gone on a nice holiday to the beach instead, and the devastating consequences of all of the above, no one will learn anything from it and they will carry on clamping crampons to their boots and propelling themselves through sheer force of crazy, stupid human will up that frigid hill in the sky to their possible/probable doom.
Premature death is a pretty clear indication that your mistakes, added together, have equaled failure. Short of death, though, it’s harder to find the failure line. Which mistakes can safely be ignored (or even celebrated, as the Kindergarten teacher did)? Which ones really ought to nudge us into changing course? If we don’t change course, how many mistakes can we get away with before they snowball themselves into a heavy burden, or roll right over us, or bring immense chunks of rock or ice hurtling down the mountain to flatten the hapless, fragile climbers who have only suits filled with feathers to protect them?