The courage to fail

Cross-posted at my Star Tribune blog.

Mount Denali, photo by Timothy Whipley
Mount Denali, photo by Timothy Whipley

Shoveling one’s driveway falls somewhere between a walk in the woods and washing the dishes on the spectrum of good times to do some thinking. Two items danced in my mind as I worked at mine after yesterday’s snow: An interview with Twin Cities people person Lars Leafblad and the news that Grand Marais explorer Lonnie Dupre called off his attempt to summit Mount Denali in Alaska.

Leafblad will soon start a new position directing the Bush Foundation’s leadership efforts. I admire those who lead and who study and teach leadership but, as a writer, usually prefer the role of observer to protagonist. Dupre has tried for the past three winters to be the first person to climb the tallest mountain in North America alone in the month of January. As much as I like a good hike, I am also not a mountain-climber.

But, when shoveling, we are all philosophers of any subject we wish to ponder.

One cup courage to fail

As I cleared a couple inches of snow off my driveway, and cursed the treacherous crust of ice beneath it, I thought about the definition of leadership discussed in Leafblad’s interview. He essentially said that part of his role at the Bush Foundation will be to develop courage to fail in our state’s leaders.

Dupre’s repeated failures to achieve his goal on Mount Denali in Alaska entered my mind at this point. I thought of how a man who wanted to climb a giant mountain alone could exemplify leadership. I also thought about why the obscure “first” which Lupre seems so determined to claim was worth the extraordinary effort he has put into it.

It’s probably because there are not many firsts still out there. The tallest mountains have been climbed, the moon visited, the oceans crossed. Dupre has had to seek out one of the greatest physical challenges which remains in order to make his mark on history.

Of course, that’s not to say challenge doesn’t exist in our world. Despite all our modern conveniences, anybody who has tried to succeed in business, pass legislation, or start a family can tell you it is not easy. I have attempted all three in the past five years and I can tell you no gadgets, websites or other technology will remove the obstacles. But you have to persist, despite the inevitable failures and setbacks.

Whether you want to lead or just live well, I think you need the courage to risk failure. The resilience to risk following your dreams over and over again. We must return to the mountain January after January.

Add a pinch of wisdom

The value of courage should not overshadow the necessity of using our brains. I was impressed by the intelligence Dupre exhibited to make the difficult decision to abandon this attempt.

He figured he could make it to the summit — achieve that goal he has chased for years now — but the previous night he had struggled to stay warm because the snow at his 17,200-foot campsite was too hard to make a good snow cave. He had not gotten much rest in the -35 degree temperatures inside his shallow cave.

Dupre knew that if he made it to the summit, he would need to rest in this cave again on his way down, and that such rest would not come with the poor conditions. And he knew that making it to the top of the mountain is one thing — making it back down again is the real accomplishment.

So he turned back.

Recipe for success

Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy being comfortable. I like my close group of friends, my well-known professional network, my well-worn hiking boots (and well-worn slippers), my home and even my favorite chair. I write about canoeing or hiking or fishing, definitely not leadership and mountain climbing.

But sometimes you have to take a leap. I did it recently when I stepped away from a cause I care deeply about and people I felt lucky to work with to pursue new work as a freelancer and a new calling as a father.

It felt like I had climbed to the top of another steep hill in life, and rather than stopping to enjoy the view, jumped off the cliff on the other side.

We won’t get anywhere in our communities, our state and our country if we don’t take big leaps — we must accept risk, welcome new ideas, admit when we are wrong, and of course use our brains.

As I discovered yesterday, we also won’t get our driveways shoveled if we stand around thinking all day.