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Failing forward

Contributor: The Nerd

We have a joke in our family that since Nerd Junior was three or four years old, he has had an endless series of obsessions. For one to three months at a time, he would spend all of his free time on his current obsession and then, for no discernible reason, move onto the next 'thing.' As a young child, the obsession often involved collecting things like Silly Bands, Pokemon cards or bouncy balls, but in grade school he moved more towards physical things like making God's eyes, knitting yarn hot pads by the dozen, learning yo-yo tricks, designing paper airplanes, reading the Harry Potter book series multiple times, and solving a Rubik's cube. Once puberty hit, I now realize, his obsessions started to get progressively harder. He bought a 4x4 Rubik's cube. He took piano lessons and excelled at playing technically difficult songs. He found a pogo stick at Goodwill; after bouncing around the block became too easy, he figured out how to play basketball while on a pogo stick. He bought a unicycle and learned how to ride it. A few years ago he memorized the college of every active NBA player. Once he mastered each task to his liking, he found the next challenge.

At the time, these endeavors were mostly entertaining to my wife and me, and we encouraged them as alternatives to television or video games. However, as I look back at them, I now realize that Junior kept taking on challenges that required repeated failures to reach mastery. Much like Thomas Edison was rumored to have failed thousands of times to find the best filament for the electric light bulb, Junior gravitated towards hobbies that required weeks or months of failures. For example, when he first got his unicyle, over a hundred times each night he failed to go more than a few feet before losing his balance. When he learned a new piano piece, he would play the same brief section 10 to 50 times until he could play it at the correct tempo without errors. When he decided he wasn't memorizing the NBA players quickly enough, he created his own Quizlet to speed up the process.

Junior embraced failure as an essential process to get better, and he wasn't afraid to invest his time and ego into each venture, even if no one else thought it was an interesting effort. It now seems clear that this early-developing personality was perfect for the distance running career he began in 7th grade; running features long hours of practice, repeated failures, limited fanfare, and the biggest reward is often accomplishing something that few other people could do... or would even attempt.

The Papio South girls' team has a motto this fall: "Do tough things." It's a take on Steve Magness' recent book, "Do Hard Things," but it's also a concept that Coach Jeremy Haselhorst has been ruminating on for several years. He teaches a leadership class at Papio South and he's noticed the past few years (perhaps because of the COVID shutdown) that high school students are increasingly shying away from attempting hard things. "Running is never easy, no matter how fit you are," Coach Haselhorst told me on Monday night, "because all of us naturally want to reach the next level." He wanted his team to buy into the idea that they were doing something tough that less bold teenagers wouldn't even try. He also needed newly-minted varsity runners to take on leadership roles which, again, included responsibilities that high school students seem less excited about embracing.

The reason I'm writing about Junior (this is really the first time I've written about him during my five years as the Nerd) is because of what I saw at the UNK meet nine days ago. For those of you who stuck around for the eighth and final race, you saw Mia Murray of Lincoln fly around the course in 18:19, just 22 seconds off the course record despite the relatively hot conditions. What you might have missed was Jaci Sievers (Elkhorn South) who maintained contact with Mia through about 3000 meters. Jaci hasn't raced since mid-June when she competed at Nike Nationals in Eugene. If the Nike meet had been in-season, the converted results (4:51 mile, 10:22 2-mile) would have placed Jaci in the top three girls in Nebraska high school history.

In large part because of Nike Nationals and her 4:51 (1600) and 10:27 (3200) victories at the State meet in May, Jaci was ranked #1 in Class A in the pre-season polls. We kept her at #1 even though she didn't race the first five weeks due to an injury, and it wasn't a given that she would compete at UNK. Jaci had no shortage of excuses. She hadn't completed a legitimate workout this fall prior to UNK, but it was clear that the course and the competition would offer a fitness check for her. She could have waited until she was in better shape and maybe held onto that #1 ranking for another week. She could have ran conservatively. Instead, she went out fast with Mia and held on for dear life.

Last fall, Jaci's slowest race was 19:08. At UNK last week, she lost contact with Mia after 3000 meters and faded quickly, finishing 16th in 20:18. During in-state competition over the last 14 months, Jaci had only been beaten by three high school runners: Elli Dahl and Alea Hardie (both now at UNL) and Stella Miner. At UNK, she was passed by fourteen runners in just the last mile.

A few hours after the UNK race, Elkhorn South coach Peter Cosimi received a text from another Class A coach: "What Jaci did today was more impressive than anything she's ever done before."

Jaci failed to win the race, failed to run a good time (by her standards), and failed to finish strong.

It was not a wasted day. The race humbled her; nearly all runners are humbled by races and workouts. It informed her; she now knows where she stands relative to the new #1 runner in state. It also advanced her training; the UNK race was arguably her first workout of the season. Finally, it also took the target off her back; she's now the hunter, not the hunted.

Successful people tackle hard things. They don't avoid failure; they seek it out.

They fail forward.

Because the UNK meet is so large, the organizers award medals to the top 20 finishers instead of the traditional top 15. After Jaci received her 16th-place medal, Coach Tim Ebers had a message for her: "Keep that medal. Don’t throw it away. Don’t put it in the closet; put it with your gold medals. You need to remember that you did something special today."

I shared a draft of this article with Coach Haselhorst and his response was so good that I had to include it:

"Failing forward is a message that is so important for young people. Honestly, it's something that we adults don't model very well. As we get older, 'hard' comes looking for us - raising a family, health issues, the deaths of loved ones. Perhaps because of that, not many adults seek out hard things. I ran a 50-mile race a couple of years ago because I personally needed to be reminded what it's like to choose to do something hard, to do something with a high likelihood of failure. Training in season is hard, and that race helped remind me of what our ladies are going through."

Is modeling important and can failing forward be contagious? I'd say 'yes' to both questions. From my Nerd perspective, I see this mentality baked into the culture of successful XC programs. As a father, I see how Jack impacted his little brother: Henry can also ride a unicycle, play pogo-stick basketball (they were 13 and 10 in the video above from 2013) and do a bunch of other really hard things that I have never attempted. I think they will teach my grandchildren about failing forward.


Originally written for and published at by Jay Slagle on October 5, 2022.

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