One of my favourite podcasts is the Tim Ferriss Show. Among the many things Tim is successful at in addition to a podcast host, is being an author. Of his books, there is one called Tribe of Mentors: Short life advice from the best in the world, presumably about life advice that is short rather than advice about living a short life. It is based on answers to 11 really good questions that Tim needed to answer for himself at one point in his life, and of which he asked some people who he most admired to see what they would say so he could learn from the best. A sample can be heard in this podcast episode link, along with more about the questions and their sequence.
Personally, I love good, thoughtful and/or philosophical questions that are useful and not just theoretical. So in addition to reading and listening to answers from the book to learn, I thought I’d give them a try first. From answers I will give, I will analyze to see what I didn’t like, or which I thought I could improve on, to see if I can obtain a better answer some time over the next few years, decade, or even some point in the rest of my life. That’s because these questions aren’t just useless and/or silly thought experiments. No. A good answer for any one of these questions can really make a difference in one’s life, even if it wouldn’t always be some grand, life altering kind, though a few might be. At the least, I will end up with a great story for each answer. So with the third post in this series, I tackle Tim’s Question #3.
3. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a ‘favorite failure’ of yours?
I came out of university with a First Class Honours Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. However, it was not healthy for me being around carcinogenic solvents all the time, and I foresaw that during my lifetime, a good part of the work with X-ray crystallography would be better done by artificial intelligence than humans. Not feeling all that useful otherwise, I went and did graphic design, something I loved to do in a voluntary role during university, albeit outside of university. I mostly self-taught myself how to do this because I was not going to commit to more school and more tuition money, but that only took me so far because credentialing was required for more serious jobs, no matter what you could do. I was able to support myself doing it, and did so for six years, but I wasn’t going to get far in life with it, so that was that.
After my trial with graphic design in cities on two of Canada’s three coasts, I was all in to really start over. I went to the local universities where I lived and got all of their graduate calendars to see if there were any degrees I could take that would only require a year or two, rather than a four year degree, which I would have to do for graphic design related studies so there was no point looking for a four year degree to start with. Among the options I found was a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) degree to do government work, which I never knew existed, but that was why I did this open-minded surveying exercise.
I thought the MPA was a good option to take and open some doors so I pursued it. The program turned out to be second rate. However, I got through it on full scholarship so it was of minimal costs to me, and I got to become a varsity athlete in my 30s when I had never been athletic in my life, also peaking in my distance running pursuit. From that, I landed a government job and am still working for the government almost 15 years later, and may only need to work a few years more before I retire at 50 due to my fiscally conservative lifestyle from another failure! That is, retiring early because I live on little money, not because I have a ton of it. As for the graphic design, I’ve never lost it and produce the nicest documents of anyone I know, including some freelance graphic designers and students! That’s a skill I will upkeep for life and will be forever valuable for life, including some books and documents I have produced! So would that count as a failure, then?
As for “favourite failures”, these are less attributable to cause and effect for successes afterwards, but their stories are legendary in my life. One is my failure to support myself financially early in my transition from chemistry to graphic design. Instead of accepting money from my Parents, I went on welfare, as I fairly should and had a right to as an adult to rely on Canada’s social safety nets. During the one month I was on it, because I landed a three month freelancing contract soon after I was on welfare, and have been self-sustaining financially since, I logged everything I earned and spent. It let know what I was spending my money, on what, how much I was saving, and so on, all pretty much in real time even though it was done in an empty cheque records book at the time. I switched to an Excel spreadsheet soon after, teaching myself to create spreadsheets that worked like software programs, and improved it enough over 15 years to share it on my site where over ten thousand users have downloaded it. As for that money tracking habit, I still do it today, and I have no doubt it is the key contributor to me possibly being able to retire at the age of 50 due to the fiscally conservative I have today!
Cheating again on the questions to provide more answers than needed, I will add that another “favourite failure” was me not qualifying for the Boston marathon in my first 17 marathons, when calf cramps would always ruin my race times. I have fast twitch muscles, which are not great for distance running, even though at shorter distances, I seem to have excess speed to be able to qualify for the Boston marathon easily. You see, when my calf muscles cramp up anywhere from miles 18-22 in most cases, I’d be limping through 16 minute fast walking miles after that to finish the remaining 4-8 miles, which would put me well out of Boston qualification time. However, after some extra rigorous training during my MPA years on the varsity cross-country team, I was able to qualify on my 18th marathon. I have qualified a bunch of more times since but have only ran Boston once, because that’s all I will ever care to do it with its super early transport out the start line, waiting hours outside, and not all that great a course. I did it once for the experience, but that will be enough. This failure didn’t lead to anything significant, but it serves as a legendary reminder to myself how much perseverance and tenacity I have when something really meaningful is on the line.
Finally, I will give one more in short summary that’s not exactly true but it did influence me. I was failed in grade 3 despite having the best report card among my fellow students because my teacher was concerned about my ability to develop English fast enough to keep up in future grades. So I didn’t fail for me to call it a failure in the true sense of the word, but I did fail to move on. I came back with a vengeance next year while keeping my fury in control and channeling it into efforts to make a statement. I didn’t just try to beat my fellow students at everything academic. I tried to destroy them, and often I did. Yet, onward in life, I have tried hard to excel in writing and public speaking in English because neither is my natural strength, though it’s not a relative weakness by societal standards by any means. And I still trash talk that teacher every time I get some acknowledgement for my writing, whether awards or very high scores in qualifying tests like the GMAT for the MBA program.
Please click here to read posts with other questions from Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors.
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