I have always learned more from my failures than from my successes. The feeling success brings is pretty fleeting but failure sticks with you and gnaws at you for quite some time. Maybe that’s just me. When I was a kid I started failing right away. Luckily, I had a short memory and I learned to get over it pretty fast. The first major mistake was smoking cigarettes when I was only 4 years old. I was hanging out with a couple of older guys who were 6 at the time. They both had parents who smoked, so cigarettes were readily available to them. I didn’t even know what smoking was because my parents were adamantly against it. This was the ’50s though so I had seen it on TV and I was pretty curious about it, since a lot of cool people seemed to like it. One day, my buddies invited me to join them in their first experiment with tobacco. They had stolen some butts from their parents and then came by to get me. Unfortunately, they were in such a hurry they forgot to get matches. We improvised by going down to the storm sewer where they were doing some construction and using the little smudge pots as a lighter. They let me have the honor of going first. I gagged my way through a couple of puffs, coughed so hard that my eyes temporarily left their sockets and promptly turned green from the poison. The other guys just laughed and questioned my manhood. At least that’s what it sounded like as they choked out the words through their own hacking. Almost dying and being called a wuss were the least of my problems. As soon as I got home, my sister Karen took one whiff of my Lucky Strike breath and quickly squealed on me to mom. My mom’s pained look was enough to convince me that tobacco was not for me.
The next year, I started kindergarten and spent a lot less time with my older buddies. As the youngest of three, I knew all about elementary school before I ever got there. There were a few rules we were taught on the first day and I listened well to my teacher’s concerns. The simple stuff like staying quiet, get in line and come when you’re called was pretty routine but then she got to the most important part, “You will not climb on top of the jungle gym.” I was dumbfounded by this and began to wonder what was at the top of the jungle gym. I waited for a few days while the teachers got comfortable and took my chance. I made it all the way to the top and back down before any teacher saw me. My accomplishment was short lived however, as one of my classmates, a girl of course, told on me. The teacher confronted me and demanded an honest answer, “Did you climb on top?” Since this was 1959, I employed the George Washington defense and honestly answered, “Yes, I did.” (Had this been 1999, I would have used the Bill Clinton strategy of, “What do you mean by on top of?”) For my truthfulness I was let off the hook. This event made a lasting impression on me that truth, justice and the American way worked for everybody, not just Superman.
My family moved to Prairie Village, Kansas after kindergarten, so I attended a new school for first grade. Other than running away from school on the first day of class, first grade was pretty uneventful. Second grade was a struggle though, as they actually expected me to study for the first time ever. Mrs. Cross was my teacher and she really wanted us to be good readers. Reading for me, was on my list of priorities right after taking out the trash and arguing with Karen. My belief was that if it didn’t have pictures, it wasn’t that important. Comic books seemed to possess all the wisdom of the ages and I was perfectly happy to devote my one minute a day to this form of literature, not the stuff she wanted. The real highlight of second grade was my friend Earl. He was even more of a free thinker than I was and we complemented each other perfectly. We were inseparable and always exchanging great new ideas for ways to exploit the system. One day, Earl cornered me on the playground and asked me if I wanted to join him for a smoke. Since it had been a few years since my last cigarette, I of course agreed. This time I was bound and determined not to get in trouble at home, so I suggested we get permission from the principal first. Our principal reeked of cigarettes and I was sure he would grant our request. I learned the meaning of the word, HYPOCRISY, that day as he not only refused to go along with this insanity; he actually called our parents and got us in more trouble with them. Luckily, Earl moved away after second grade. I am quite certain he became a very successful used car salesman or personal injury lawyer.
I think we all learn more from mistakes. Mistakes happen when you’re stretching yourself and your abilities. Taking a chance is an incredibly important part of growing up. It teaches you to look before you leap and to calculate risk. Life isn’t meant to be safe and easy. It should be an adventure that you look forward to every day. I’m not suggesting you dodge cars on the interstate but there are an infinite number of less dangerous pursuits that will bring you incredible satisfaction. Then, when you do succeed in life, it will mean that much more to you having overcome obstacles along the way. I think Joe Namath said it best, “When you win, nothing hurts.”
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