Vail Daily column: Tell the true story
It was perhaps the most frustrating and terrifying two years. I had been dropped into a suburb of Toronto to help Spanish-speaking residents and refugees. I spoke English. I was 19, naive and quiet could’ve been the first three bullet points on my resume. I really didn’t have any relevant experience for what I was attempting to do. The mandate was simple: Learn Spanish and help people in life-changing ways.
My day would begin by desperately studying a Spanish grammar text for an hour, followed by an hour of reading, followed by an hour of attempting to speak. No matter how many hours I spent learning, no preparation was psychologically sufficient.
You see, I made mistakes. I screwed up the Spanish language in ways that had not theretofore been done. I was a great inventor of failure in a slew of forms and functions, creating machinations not yet seen by man. It was awful sounding, often embarrassing, and horribly depressing. If I guessed at some words or grammar, I could insult people, instantly shutting down a friendly conversation and mutating it into something awkward and painful.
My improvement was so poor the first month of trying that I was considering quitting. I was actually fantasizing about hitchhiking to the border and disappearing forever into Buffalo to live out my life as a foundry worker. Maybe I could go home and finish university instead. This thing that I’m trying to do here … not worth it. This helping people thing … I need to make a selfish choice here. After all, they can find someone else who actually speaks Spanish.
It was on one of my worst days that the words of a teacher came to my mind. In high school, I sang in several choirs. One of them was a massive choral group of nearly 200 students.
As you can imagine, it takes a special kind of crazy to get 200 teenagers on the same page, and by same page I mean literally getting them to open the music to the same page. For this reason, I’m convinced that there is a special corner of heaven (and hell, depending on who you ask) for Nathan Wright.
When most choirs learn music, they must overcome some of the basic psychological barriers that are present when anyone learns anything. One particular problem is that the singers are sometimes too prideful or too scared to be heard making a mistake. This results in a huge loss of sound and skill, as singers become more interested in hiding within the choir to avoid embarrassment rather than improving their ability.
Mr. Wright didn’t like quiet mistakes. He would rant against them. When individuals made mistakes so loudly that they were unmistakable, he rejoiced, even celebrated. It was the journey to doing something at a high level of skill that made the mistakes worth it.
“You’ve got to have courage! Be loud! If you make a mistake, own it. Be men and women, not children.”
I didn’t know I was learning a life lesson.
As with most skills in life, the sooner we identify where the skill gap of a singer resides, the sooner it can be remedied. The louder the mistake, the better. If you hide, you can hide a long time without improving, and you cheat yourself.
Thank goodness these thoughts ran through my mind a few years later. I decided to own my failures in Spanish, and beyond that I invented even better ways to embarrass myself. I doubled, then tripled my rate of failure, speaking to everyone I could in Spanish, asking for feedback, scribbling like a lunatic in a small notebook I kept in my front pocket. I kept studying. I kept failing. Then one day, I ceased to suck. I kept finding new ways to fail, and I strive to fail today.
We hear stories all the time that sound just like this:
I became a father, and suddenly I was an amazing parent.
I went to college, and now I have a great career.
I bought these Asics, and then I became a marathoner.
Don’t let the story end here! This is not the story we should be telling anyone, especially ourselves. The stories are longer! We must tell the true story, the one filled with anguish and despair, heartache and torment, disappointment and embarrassment. We must latch on to all of the beauty of our failure, and before we do that, we must commit to making our mistakes a bit … just a bit … louder.
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached at 970-471-3546.