Learning Through Failure

26 March 2015

For the last three months I’ve been studying front-end web development (HTML, CSS, Javascript) at The Iron Yard code academy in Austin, TX. Its been very much a transformational experience, one that has given me insight into this mysterious “interwebs” thing and that has given me tools and skills I might have never learned on my own (strike that – I’m certain I would have never learned those skills without the help of our awesome instructor Aaron). I’ve made new friends, who I hope will be life-long and moved the proverbial curtain aside on the tech industry allowing me a view into this “wild west”.

Its been an awesome ride, and I’m sad its over. However, today…today of days, in front on my classmates and friends I failed my final project audition. The final project is meant to be the culmination of all that we’ve learned during the course and an opportunity to show off during “demo day” when visiting companies come in looking for talent to hire. In a room surrounded by faculty and staff, I was informed I would not graduate with the rest of my class due to a few incomplete assignments from two months ago (truly, I don’t know how I overlooked them, but they were missing) and a sub-par final-project demo presentation.

That was painful. (Insert punch to the gut here). After the meeting, I left the building and headed for the gym to burn a few calories as a sacrifice.

Failure is not new to me. My undergraduate degree is in Music Education and in order to complete a degree in Music, Music majors were required to perform a 30 minute solo recital on their primary instrument their senior year. My instrument was the trumpet and a trumpet recital was the culmination of years of deliberate practice: scales, etudes and solos. After much blood, sweat and tears, we then had to pass our “upper divisional” before we were allowed to finally begin working on our recital material. The upper divisional was an audition in front of the music faculty and one that would determine if you finished your degree or not. If Music Education were ever a high-stakes game, these stakes were of the highest order.

For the music student who had been taking lessons since grade school and had practiced religiously since, the upper divisional was stressful, but not insurmountable. I’d heard stories about some students who, with performance anxiety issues, had failed their upper divisional, but had come back the next semester and passed. This was not to be me. Oh no. I had started practicing seriously in college. I did not grow up taking regular lessons and so I didn’t fail my upper divisional once – I failed it twice. After both occasions, I experienced some emotions that were hard to deal with. I was embarrassed, I was disappointed, I was ashamed. I thought of switching majors and took various classes outside of music, but after plenty of reflection I ultimately decided I should try a third time. I passed.

After graduation, I decided I wanted to keep learning and performing so I joined the U.S. Army Band. I was stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA and for four years I toured the U.S. West Coast with world-class musicians. However, just like my upper divisional experience, the Army band presented its own set of challenges. My trumpet embouchure had a hard time keeping up with the rigorous marching and performance schedule and it didn’t take long for me to realize I needed professional help. Trumpet help.

After searching around the Pacific Northwest for trumpet teachers, I was fortunate enough to land on Rick Pressley of the Seattle Symphony. Rick had been in the West Point Band and understood the specific challenges I faced as an Army musician. In short order, he helped me develop a practice routine that gave me what I needed to meet our demanding schedule. Eventually, I earned spots in our traveling ensembles and got to a point in my playing where I no longer felt like the laggard, but like an equal… a useful “equal” at that. I had arrived at a point where I decided I could explore other career options with a sense of accomplishment and decided to go to business school for a whole new set of adventures.

Since that time, I’ve faced many challenges where I felt like a poser, like I didn’t belong, like a LOSER. I’ve learned that if I’m truly following my curiosity and passion, then I’m bound to fail once in a while and that’s ok. I’m happier that way. Its put me in a position where now I have the freedom to continue to ask new questions and look around new corners. My life is richer for it and I’m a little wiser as well, but I’ve had to accept failure as part of the process.