Cultivating the Fertile Ground of Failure

I have a confession to make: After 14 years of being a father, I still wonder daily if I am ever going to really figure out this parenting business. I often joke with friends who are new parents that there’s a reason the shelves in the “Parenting” section of your local bookstore sag under the weight of the newest, latest, and greatest “how-to” guides.

Each parent is different, each child is different, and each situation in which parenting occurs is unique.

Bottom line: It’s hard work and there is seldom an easy-to-read road map available to any of us when we embark upon the journey.

With that said, the one thing I feel I have learned in those 14 years is this: Failures and mistakes often provide the best opportunities for productive parenting and relationship building with my children.

Positive reinforcement and encouragement in response to the behavior we want our children to model is critical and should be celebrated, but in those moments when things go wrong, the foundation of character building is laid, the virtue of self-reflection is sown, and trust is nurtured, both for my children AND myself as their parent.

Now I have another confession to make: What has come easier for Todd the parent has not always been so easy for Todd the professional.

I would like to think that after nearly 25 years of professional experience, my skin is thicker and my ego less sensitive, but failures and mistakes—and the necessary critiques that come in those moments—well, they still sting.

Let’s be honest: Failure stinks, and our knee-jerk reaction is almost always to try and forget about it and move on to the next thing. But I know that is the wrong approach and is a missed opportunity for both personal professional growth and larger organizational development. Here’s what I have learned about professional failure and what I am working daily to put into practice as an individual.

My home now is in Wayne County, outside of Goldsboro, on the farm my wife grew up on, where both her father and grandfather tended the land as small farmers. My wife and her sister have taken over the active operations of the farm and have started implementing sustainable agricultural practices to improve both the quality of production and the health of the land.

This past season, we made the first significant attempt to sow cover crops on a large portion of our farm where commodity crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat were once grown. The cover crops would provide natural organic matter for the soil, it would be nitrogen fixing, and would help prevent erosion of vital topsoil.

My job was to prep the fields for the crops. It was work, a lot of work. I threw myself into spending many hours on the tractor mowing, discing, discing some more, and then seeding.

I was really proud of my hard work and the effort. I was eager to see the cover crops spring up over the summer. I imagined sitting on my front porch admiring my handiwork during the summer evenings with a rewarding cold beverage in my hand.

Then, almost as soon as I stepped off the tractor, our region went into a drought. For almost three weeks after seeding, we saw no meaningful rainfall.

I began to joke with friends that I had just sown the state’s largest bird feeder.

The window of my home office looks out at one of the fields I had work so hard to prep. For those three weeks I stared out at dirt, then, as the dry summer dragged out, I had a front row seat to weeds …. Lots of weeds.

It was humbling and frustrating to sit on Zoom calls with colleagues and stare at my failure. The more I sat there through the summer, the more I tried to make sense of what it meant in the larger vision and goals of what we hoped to achieve on the farm. Initially, I couldn’t wait until Autumn to quickly mow under the mistake and start anew with a fresh round of cover crops, but after a while I began to ask what could I learn from this misstep?

Here's what I came away with after a summer spent staring down a field of weeds.

1) Stay Focused on the Long-Term Objectives in the Face of Short-term Failure: As in the nonprofit world, farming is often comprised of shorter, more measurable steps toward a larger and more distant goal. Whether implementing programs to assist homelessness in your community while addressing the larger issue of access to affordable housing, or scheduling crop rotations in the short term that mean greater soil health and crop production in the long term, it is good to have measurable goals that can be evaluated along your journey, but remember the ultimate goal is on the horizon, and there WILL be missteps along the way. Don’t get discouraged.

2) Don’t Write off your Failures Quickly. We live in a fast-paced world that craves and rewards instant gratification. Reflection is a luxury the busy professional seemingly cannot afford. The catch of my summer of discontent was that after a while certain cover crops DID in fact start to take root and grow. While I sat staring at weeds, the cover sown on other parts of the farm begin to sprout, eventually choking out the competing weeds. If I had given up and plowed everything under when I really wanted to (and I really wanted to), the fields of abundant millet and sun hemp I had sown would have never gotten their chance to shine. Sometimes, a success can start out disguised as a failure.

3) Take the time to Learn from your Failures: As with parenting, failure in our personal and professional lives can often provide the most rewarding and long-lasting personal growth and professional development. It is never healthy to dwell on mistakes or failures, of course, but it is a missed opportunity not to reflect and make sense of what went wrong and how we can grow from the experience. On the farm, we learned over-seeding was the best option for future cover crops, that certain fields might need amendments moving forward, and that certain crops naturally did better in our soil than others. For nonprofit organizations, often under capacity and overstretched, it can be hard to find the time to debrief and reflect on what went “wrong,” but it is in those moments that invaluable nuggets of insight can be unearthed to course correct in your current work and readjust for future growth.

4) Look for the Wins Hiding Amid your Failures: In the nonprofit field, it seems natural to view our work as both relational and transactional. The transactional work can be easier to measure and evaluate, but it is the relational work that often moves the needle, advances our missions, and changes the lives of communities and individuals. Sometimes, our “transactional” failures can result in “relational” wins. As a parent, admitting and owning my own mistakes to my children helps build trust in a growing, evolving relationship (especially true as I embark on the teenage years). In farming, reaching out to neighbors and the local cooperative extension agency (a true gem of our state), can build strong and long-lasting relationships with the frank and honest question of, “What did I get wrong?” In the nonprofit field, a frank discussion of mistakes can feel uncomfortable and counterproductive when we are moving so quickly, but those moments can strengthen relationships with boards, staff, and the communities we serve by inviting them into the discussion, into the reflection process, and the subsequent planning.

The natural human instinct is to avoid confronting our failures and protecting our egos, to shift our gaze and look ahead to what’s next or only celebrate the wins. As I have tried to remind myself as a parent, partner, and a professional; however, meaningful growth is seldom easy, but the gains are long lasting. Let’s learn together, from both the good and the bad.

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