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Nurturing curiosity & inspiring the pursuit of discovery

Before success comes the courage to fail

Bambooi2 The natural world around us provides many lessons. Late last year I discussed how the humble bamboo plant has a lot to teach us about succeeding in this world. I love bamboo for many reasons, and as I said here before (and included in the Naked book in a callout section), bamboo itself offers us lessons in flexibility, strength, perseverance, simplicity, and openness. Today, while jogging up past some small farms in the mountains near our home in Nara, I passed through a familiar bamboo forest. But today something was different. I noticed one of the bamboo trees had given way and snapped during a strong wind we had recently. This caused me to take notice and slow down. We notice what is different, and if we slow down long enough a lesson may be revealed; this is a kind of "listening with the eyes." It seems that in a strong and unyielding wind, even the bend-but-don't-break adaptability of the humble bamboo will be tested to the point of failure. A subtle reminder from nature that even the strong and the courageous and the flexible fail sometimes. An old Japanese proverb says "Even monkeys fall from trees." (Saru mo ki kara ochiru — 猿も木から落ちる.) Somehow knowing this allows us to push past fear and to participate more fully as we embrace or own imperfections, even as we work to improve.

For years I lived in the center of a massive city in Japan, and there were lessons there. Now I live here, and the lessons are still to be found. Today I ran up the mountain and past many farm houses with rice fields in their winter state. Our house is in the distant hills across the valley below.

Higher up the mountain I came across an area of bamboo. I often pass by here on longer runs, but what caught my eye was the bamboo which had succumbed to the wind. Even the bending bamboo breaks just as monkeys sometimes fall from trees.

Slide featuring the monkey quote.

The biggest mistake is not taking action
We fear mistakes and failure more than just about anything. We fear mistakes to the point where we don't even begin to make the changes we know we need to make, or give up when we meet resistance long before the goal has been achieved. And yet, if you'll allow me to stretch a quote from Buddha just a bit, there are only two mistakes we should fear: not starting and not finishing. Failure and mistakes are not the problem, of course, it is the fear of them which may keep us from starting a difficult journey or force us to give up even after we mustered up enough courage to at least start. Quitting in itself is not a bad thing—often it is the wisest choice which also takes courage in its own right. But giving up out of an overpowering fear of failure is the kind of quitting that leads to regret, the kind of regret that eats away at you for a very long time. To paraphrase an old adage, hurt feelings, disappointments, and even embarrassments about past mistakes heal with time, but the regrets about the things we did not do are inconsolable (see Sydney Smith quotes).

Mistakes_slide.001-001  Mistakes_slide.002-001
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Four different treatments of the same quotation in slides. Here running is used as a familiar metaphor for a journey or exploration, etc. Whether we're talking about the search for truth or knowledge, or finding a job, or making a change in our lives, it's often hard to start and difficult to stick with it. And the fear of failing is a barrier we must overcome.

Failure is always an option
One of my favorite TV shows is MythBusters (available here in Japan on Discovery as well). The MythBusters website says they mix "scientific method with gleeful curiosity and plain old-fashioned ingenuity to create their own signature style of explosive experimentation." (I wish my classes in school when I was a kid had had a similar formula.) Early on in the shows development, co-host Adam Savage came up with the phrase "Failure is always an option" as a way of encapsulating their approach to exploration, testing, and the process discovery and uncovering answers and solutions. In the video below Adam Savage is in the middle of telling a personal story of failure which took place long before he was the famous MythBuster on TV. To hear much more see the entire presentation here.

This MythBusters clip below highlights the necessity—or at least the common occurrence—of failure on the journey to success.


Charlie Pharis

Thanks, Garr, for sharing these insights. And thanks for all your long-distance encouragement and wisdom that helps us be better communicators.

Quick question: What's the small-caps font in the monkey quote slide?

Thanks again!

Simone Brunozzi

The place where you live is absolutely fantastic :)


Thank you for the post. Insightful and useful for me personally and professionally.

I'd be very interested in using your Monkey slide in one of my presentations to a group of librarians. Can I have permission to use the slide (and add appropriate credit)?

Email me at

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