Failure is the mother of success

Plank at sunset on Kili

While I can’t say I’m not bothered by failure, I can at least recognize that very often I get some of my best stories out of failures or at least times when things didn’t go as expected.

Still, failing is hard.  It’s hard to accept.  It’s hard to admit.  It’s embarrassing.  When I failed to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro those were a mixture of the emotions I experienced—embarrassment, frustration, sadness, disappointment, but also understanding and acceptance.

The moment I realized I wasn’t going to reach the top I started crying.  I don’t cry that often so I’m not really used to it.  And, normally if I need to cry in public I try not to.  There was no holding back these tears.  They just came.  I’d exerted too much energy getting this far to utilize any effort holding back tears now.  I’d lost control of my body, physically and emotionally.  I basically cried myself down that mountain, doing the walk of shame as everyone heading up stepped aside to let me down.

They were letting me pass, but I had let myself down.

A picture Matt took from the top.

Reaching the top of that mountain was a random goal I’d set for myself.  I couldn’t articulate why I wanted or needed to do it.  I’m still not sure.  Part of the reason is that I truly wish I could see the world from every angle and every vantage.  But during the hike, I realized Kili has three peaks.  We were hiking Kibo, but if I really wanted to see the world from every angle I’d need to come back and hike the other two peaks, which doesn’t appeal to me.  I also wanted to get to the top while there is still snow to see.  I had something to prove to myself about strength, fitness, endurance and health.

No one pressured me to go.  I think more people thought I was crazy.  It’s possible I pressured Matt to join me.  The desire to make it to the rooftop of Africa was entirely self-inflicted.

Not making it to the top was a failure.  People keep telling me it wasn’t, and while I appreciate their point, I can call a spade a spade.  Like most things in life, failure isn’t simple.  We think of failure as bad, but it’s not all bad.  Each time I see a picture of the glacier, snow spattered top, I’m completely haunted by not making it.  Then I read about a thirty-five year old woman dying on the mountain two weeks after we returned and I’m entirely okay.  My time in Africa, especially the hike, was an emotional rollercoaster.  It was like I had multiple personalities.  One full of confidence in what I had accomplished and one that cared about what others might think.

Another pic Matt snapped at the summit.

It’s been over a month and I can’t stop thinking about the experience.  I failed to reach the top, but overall I see the trip as a success.  I listened to my body—something I try to teach people to do every day.  Clearly, I wasn’t thrilled about what my body was telling me, but I listened.  I didn’t vomit.  Pretty much anytime in life you don’t vomit, it’s a success.  I reached over 17,000-feet.  That’s the highest I’ve ever been by about 3,000-feet.  I cried in front of people.  I’m not so good with the feels when other humans are around, so I’m chalking this up as a success too.

Most importantly what I learned from this trip is that I have this massive group of family, friends and clients who I am pretty sure could have cared less if I got to the top of that mountain or not.  Sure, they knew I wanted to get there so they wanted it for me, but they seem genuinely interested in the story, the adventure, the ups and the downs.  It is very empowering to learn you have a group of supporters who think you are pretty okay even when you fail, but you have to fail to really learn that.  In fact, that has been one of the best lessons from this failure.

They seemed impressed that I tried.  The effort I put in, even if I didn’t succeed, mattered more than the end goal.  After turning back, there were moments in Africa where I would cover my face with my hands in disgrace and tell Matt, “Uhh, I have to go home and tell people I didn’t do it.  They are going to know I couldn’t make it.”  I know the good people in my life and they deserve more credit than that.  It was my own issue.  No one I interact with was going to make me feel bad for not making it; in fact everyone actually went a step further and made me feel good about not making it.

When I express the disappointment, sadness, and frustration people seem to feel bad for me.  But here’s the thing.  It’s okay that I’m upset I didn’t make it to the top.  Even if I did a good job overall, it’s a real bummer.  Still, even in that disappointment, I recognize that I gained so much from the adventure.  There was never a moment that I wasn’t enthralled by the view of the top.  Not one.  We gazed upon it for seven days and it never grew old.  It’s a spectacular mountain.  In my worst moments on the mountain, I knew I was surrounded by a remarkable part of the world.  When I turned back and saw the orange sunrise silhouetting the other peaks I was in awe, and need to sit down. The waterfalls and vegetation that existed at 15,000-feet baffled me.  The sun warmed me, radiating in and making me grateful.

Our fellow hikers were the best people for me to hike with.  It’s possible we’ll never interact again, but we are bonded, and I’m appreciative of that bond I developed with each one of them.  The guides, porters and environment humbled me at almost every interaction and it’s good to feel humbled now and again.

At lava tower. Day four. 15,000-feet

People have asked me if I’d do it again.  No one has asked me if I would still have gone if I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the top.  I’m not sure I’d ever want to do this hike again for lots of reasons, but I have no regrets in going.  I wouldn’t give up the experience.  If I had the choice of not going or going and not making it, the latter would win.

When we reached the end of our hike, wet from the rain falling and the sweat accumulating beneath our ponchos, we stopped for lunch.   I sat back in a small, plastic lawn chair and was utterly happy.  They served us vegetables.  A man played the guitar.  We were off the mountain.  I was truly okay with not reaching the summit.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life simply sitting in a plastic chair with a Coke, some green beans, and Matt.

The mountain showed me what you truly need to be happy.  You don’t have to reach every goal.  The trying can be worthwhile.  The people you fill your life with matter most.  And more often than not, what really brings us joy is quite simple—a seat to rest, some food, friends, and feeling connected.  A shower is good to, but you don’t always need one.  My life is very full.  I have a lot to be grateful for, which makes failing easier.

2017-10-05T13:04:00+00:00

About the Author:

Maggie Downie
Thank you for giving your time to stop and read my blog. I hope it encourages you to keep moving. Move and the body will be happier. And when you're moving you can hike, run, swim in Jell-O, race over non-Newtonian fluids, travel the world or build igloos--if that's your thing. If not, you can watch me do it. This is just a spot to try and feel good about life.

2 Comments

  1. Joanne Palazzi October 2, 2017 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Failure is the way I feel I have led my life. In the end it does matter to not let you be who you truly are. I have had some terrible things happened but they don’t define me, that is not who I really am. I am climbing that mountain with you just to discover there is life and it is worth living. I have my own mountain in front of me right now. I have not been on a highway in 5 or more years (very limiting) and have built it into a big panic disorder. I have the opportunity right now to go visit my first, best great love who left me. He wants to get together and see what happens. He is a very likeable, happy, energentic, good thoughts and likes the outside, and outdoorsy. I have to drive to York, ME where he lives and I don’t know that I can but I will try to drive it. I feel like I have become the most unlikeable person and unable to get close to any human being but to pass this I will remain alone for the rest of my life and that is not where I need to be. I can travel again, feel again, touch again and perhaps love again or stay in my jar. So I have to believe that failure is not an option. I use to be so much like Maggie and than I chose to let the world run me down. So in what you see as a failure is a great triumph. Its quitting to be a player that is a failure.

    • Maggie Downie
      Maggie Downie October 2, 2017 at 7:38 pm - Reply

      Joanne–First let me say that you are NOT unlikeable at all. I’m so sorry you feel that way. I love having you in class. I’m so happy you joined our classes. Sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves the way others see us. We are often our toughest critics. You are a pleasure and a joy. Anxiety and self-doubt certainly face us at different times in life. From what I know of you, I think you are capable of anything you set your mind to. I’m cheering for you in all your life goals.

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