This is Nasara. She is two and lives next door to Erin and I. She spends most of her day running around outside trying to get the attention of her father, our landlord by repeatedly saying “Da! Da!” until he notices. Sometimes when I get home from work, Wuntira her brother is riding his bicycle of about three weeks around and around the yard, over and over. He pauses briefly and greets me “Mr Azundo!” (my local name) and I greet him back. Nasara wants to join in and she attempts a slightly muffled “Aphumdo!” “Azundo!” I say back. “Aphumdo!” she tries again. “Azundo!” I say. “Azumdo!” “Eh-heh!” I say, smiling, (it’s close enough) and she smiles back at me.
The funny thing about two year olds is they are terrible at speaking. It’s funny and it makes us laugh, and it makes them smile and keep trying. Their eyes light up when they finally get it right and everyone celebrates the small success on what seems like an impossibly long journey, especially to someone like me who has been trying to learn Dagbani for the last year. Yet no doubt in three months time or less Nasara will be speaking much better Dagbani than I ever will.
That third not-quite-successful utterance of “Azumdo” and my corresponding positive reinforcement got me thinking about one of my favourite topics: failure. I’ve written about failure in the past and I think coming to terms with it and even promoting our ability to be comfortable with failure is important for both personal development and for finding innovative solutions to the problems we are seeking to solve. But how many times do I encourage others through failure the way I encouraged Nasara? How often do I push someone despite them failing once or twice before on the exact same thing? How often do I just ignore the uncomfortable situation that is another’s failure? That possibly embarrassing admission of incompetence? This is not to say I should be treating people like two-year-olds but bringing the spirit of encouragement and not backing down from failure. How else can we ever hope to make it in our most difficult tasks?
Beyond supporting others I also thought a bit about how I act when I fail. Most people don’t like failing much, and I’m not exception. I’m certainly not smiling and looking for encouragement when I don’t deliver on an objective at work, forget a commitment that I made to someone else, or even just lose at cribbage. It got me wondering about how I can be more child-like in my failures. I need to fail like Nasara fails, with a smile on my face and the resolve to get up and try again. I need to invite encouragement from others who know more or are more skilled than I am and go forward with the same enthusiasm I started with.
Failure is the first step to learning, and expecting to succeed without it seems ridiculous when I think about it. Yet sometimes it is so hard to make that commitment to something I think I will fail at. No matter how I rationalize it there is that emotional connection with failure. Going forward I’m hoping to keep Nasara’s smile at the forefront of my mind and remember that I can smile my way through my failures too.