This is a longish post provoked by the clip above – a starter for the ‘Epic Fail Conference’ last year.
I was reflecting this morning that after 47 years of life I have had a fair old mix of failures, successes, failures that some would consider successes and successes that some would consider failures.
So much depends on perspective and the ability to learn.
One of the most pivotal experiences of my life (as young as I was) was ‘failing’ the 11+ exam when we lived in Belfast. Essentially this was a test to see if you were a smart kid or a dumb one and as a result you would either go to ‘grammar school’ and then uni or a ‘tech college’ where you would learn a trade. I have a lousy memory, but I do remember that when the numbers were counted I finished on the wrong side of the ledger and was bound for life as a tradie rather than someone with a university qualification.
I hadn’t realised before that exam that I wasn’t smart. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it, but at that point it was made clear to me. Then shortly after that exam we moved to Australia. After 3 months living in Nollamara which was a small slice of hell for a fat, freckled Irish kid we moved to Innaloo (yep – its a real suburb name and I’ve heard all the jokes…) and I went to North Innaloo Primary School.
I remember immediately getting slotted into the ‘lower academic stream’ class, which based on my immediate history was probably where I belonged. I was in that class for all of about 2 hours. What became apparent very quickly was that I was far more advanced in my education than my Aussie mates. The simple and very uninspiring reason for this was that we started school in Ireland 2 years younger than in Oz so I had done a lot of the work that Aussie kids were just starting on. I managed to knock off an hour of long division work in just 10 minutes and then 30 minutes later I found myself being relocated to the ‘smart class’.
You’re kiddin me right?
But I discovered that compared to those around me I was now above average academically. What happened over that year was that I began to believe I was actually a smart kid… and I finished up as runner up dux of the school.
Had I been back in Ireland chances are I would have been believing a different story about myself and living out of that. The interesting thing is that I wasn’t stupid – but I likely would have believed that about myself because ‘men in white coats’ told me so.
That was a formative experience and one that gave me courage for the future. In early high school I probably wagged as much school as I attended and consequently got caught up to academically. I was still pretty capable and had grown in confidence, but wasn’t quite the ‘superboy’ I once felt I was. Now I was just the ratbag kid who was constantly in trouble. I could still get decent grades with minimal effort so my energies went into other more important activities like basketball and surfing.
At the end of year 12 I bombed on the TEE and scraped into Phsy Ed at UWA with the lowest entrance score of all 120 of us. I know because we compared results on the Phys Eder’s orientation camp (now there’s another story…) and I was bottom of the pile. This time it was sheer determination that got me thru. After 1 year there were 60 of us left and at the end of the course 30 and I was a mid level performer. I had made it and even scored a job as a teacher down in the little country town of Wagin.
Since then life has its fair share of successes and failures. To be fair the next 15 years were fairly full of successes. I did well at teaching, did well at ministry, got offered some pretty cool jobs, managed to get chosen for some roles I would never have imagined myself in and generally felt fairly invincible and able to take on anything. I see that same indomitable self belief in 30 somethings now and smile. I remember that feeling – or should I say that illusion?…
If its true that we learn more from our failures than our successes then the last 10 years have been my education – and I’m sure I’m not done yet. Living with an illusion of invincibility is wonderful until someone sticks a pin in the bubble and you realise that reality is quite different.
I left my team leader role at Lesmurdie Baptist to begin Upstream with a sense of being someone who would ‘show the world’ what decent church planting looked like. My reasoning was that if I could succeed there (Lesmurdie), then I could succeed somewhere else and who could possibly stuff up a church plant in a new suburb?
Yeah, well if you’ve been a long time reader then you’d know that things didn’t go to plan at all. It was a really hard road and it didn’t turn out anything like I imagined or hoped it would. It was humbling and at times even humiliating not to achieve what I thought I could. My vision of success wasn’t in blessing and serving a community and seeing God’s kingdom come. It was in growing and expanding a church (albeit of a different kind to the norm) that would do some good things but that would ultimately make me look pretty good.
I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of that journey as there is plenty in the archives to do that… but fair to say that in my personal failure there was some amazing learning.
I need to add that what we did with Upstream wasn’t a failure in the sense of it not being valuable. (Danelle always reminds me of this.) It was a brilliant time and there was much good to come from it. But in terms of what I personally set out to achieve – it was a big ‘F’.
Since then there have been a few other significant ‘F’s, some that have knocked us around a bit (again I won’t detail them all) but in the process of ‘effing’ I am conscious of becoming a much fuller human being. Some of the quotes in the clip above make much better sense to me now. Some of the struggles of others who find life hard make more sense to me now too.
I find myself somewhat less idealistic these days and at times barely optimistic. I understand some of the cynicism I used to see in older people who have ‘been there done that’an couldn’t get excited if their life depended on it.
And yet I do have a deep sense that some of our best adventures and our service to God are yet to come. Maybe they won’t end with my fame and glory as I once thought, but perhaps there is stuff of real consequence and significance to invest our lives in. I think so anyway…
Perhaps one of the most powerful learnings of the last phase of life has been that ‘I cannot make it happen/ I am not in control’ as I once thought I was. Its a pretty obvious one really. But in the wake of a number of successes its easy to see yourself as the common element. That learning about the limitations of my own abilities has at times caused me to be passive as I have thought ‘it doesn’t matter what I do – it isn’t going to make a difference’. That thought is a long way from the gung ho attitude of my early 30’s, and is obviously an unhealthy overreaction.
Lately I’ve been feeling like the ‘dust has been settling’ somewhat and that maybe there is a new challenge around the corner. I’m not sure what form that takes or even if I’m right about that, but I feel like I’m ready. There is so much in scripture & history about leaders who have had periods of darkness or failure which have served as some of their richest growth periods.
Then again I might just keep rolling in the same vein for many years to come, but I feel like I am doing so with a much healthier perspective and a much greater sense of hope. Paul’s words about having this treasure in jars of clay rings very true and now the ‘claylike’ nature of my being is less disturbing to me. Superman I am not. Of course everyone else knew that long ago – just took me a while to figure it out.