Sunday, September 07, 2014

The beauty of spectacular, crushing failure

Although there was a game on Thursday, today is really opening day in the NFL. Today marks the first of 20 straight Sundays (Monday mornings for me) with at least six hours of meaningful football, a streak broken only by the Pro Bowl on January 25. I have a fairly bipolar approach to being a football fan. I don't follow football during the off-season, which to me includes the pre-season, and I mostly follow by watching as many games as I can, which can be as many as a dozen games in a week, but nothing else. Sure, I do read Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback and some of the analysis on Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, but I probably rank with the a disinterested stadium security guard for the ratio of games watched to knowledge of what's happening in the league.

Not following football in the off-season means that I never really finished recovering from the emotional shock of seeing the Broncos demolished in the Super Bowl. As much as I try to leave sports where they belong, which is as a fun hobby, the Broncos' Super Bowl defeat was probably one of the three most jarring, most disappointing experiences I have ever experienced in any sport I've watched or played in my life, starting with cricket in Pakistan and continuing through with running and football in Korea.

The first was the Jaguars' upset of the Broncos in the 1996 playoffs, the last game the Broncos would ever play in their orange jerseys and bright blue helmets. It was only my second season of watching any pro sport, but for some reason, I had become tremendously attached to the team and, probably never having seen an upset where the team I rooted for was on the losing side, I was shocked to see how unpredictable sports could be. Of course, it probably took me another five or ten years to realize how unpredictable sports could be, I was probably left with a tremendous feeling of unfairness that somewhat irrationally lingers to this day in the form of a crystal-clear memory of the 1996 season, perhaps even clearer than the 1997 and 1998 seasons where the Broncos won the Super Bowl.

The second jarring experience was the 2008 Boston Marathon, where I showed up in the best shape I have ever been in before or since, along half a dozen friends who went as far as to make t-shirts bearing my likeness, and then got off to an awkward, underwhelming start before finding myself unable to even jog just after the halfway mark. This one stung for three reasons. The first was the obvious, tremendous gap between expectations and reality. The second was the fact that I still don't understand what happened. My best guess was that I had a virus, the symptoms of which became apparent a few days later, but I'll never know. The third reason was that running is, to a great extent, quantifiable and meritocratic. A lot of runners expect it to work something like a vending maching, with inputs in the form of training producing quantifiable outputs in performance, unlike, say, a team sport.

The third was the Super Bowl in February. Although I can't see games on TV here in Korea and most Koreans don't know anything about football, I had mentally awarded a Super Bowl to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the player and team for which I cheer inasmuch as I cheer for anyone or any team. Even though I had dismissed the Broncos in October on the basis that teams with historically strong offenses tend to peter out in the playoffs in the form of the 1998 Vikings as well as the 2007 and 2011 Patriots, their playoff run, Manning's renaissance and the comparative lack of hype awarded to the Seahawks got me to believe. What made the Super Bowl jarring was the totality of the Broncos' destruction. It was like watching Mark Wohlers forget how to pitch, like reading an essay from a student who completely misunderstood the assignment, like coming to a pathetic stop 18 kilometres shy of the Boston Marathon's finish line.

A margin of 7 or 10 points would have been understandable and even the 22-0 halftime score just led me to believe that one tremendous comeback was going to happen, but by the time it was 36-0 in the third quarter, I had to admit that what I had been seeing was not an aberration. The Broncos had basically played the worst game in Super Bowl history, possibly worse than they might have played if they had been paid off by gamblers to lose badly. Again, the wide gap between expectations and reality was so jarring that sports made its way from the place where I normally keep it in my life, as either recreation, entertainment or some combination of both, into the rest of my life. It was really not that different from seeing a favourite character on Law and Order die or leave the show, but I couldn't explain why.

Two weeks ago, while running and promising not to make the same mistake in fall races that I have in the past 2-3 years, I thought of all the losing teams from cities like Toronto and Buffalo have endured, and how, though we often rationalize defeat and failure as setting us up for greater success in the future, it's often the case that we failed on the most significant stage of our lives. Jim Kelly lost four consecutive Super Bowls and never won one. I showed up at the start line of the Boston Marathon and ran easily the worst race of my life. Walter Mondale ran for president and endured a spectacular defeat.

Each of us bounced back in some way, but Jim Kelly never won a Super Bowl, I still don't have the sub-three marathon I thought was the least of my worries that day, and Mondale never became president. It's not that failing at the highest level of a given activity means you suck at that activity, but bouncing back isn't guaranteed and a lot of failure is irredeemable. There's a tremendous lesson to be learned in having failed at something, and it's not that it'll motivate you to succeed in future attempts or that you'll learn why you failed and improve in some way.

The lesson is that failing spectacularly is a chance to learn compassion and empathy, and a chance to reflect on the way you live. Admittedly, there's no guarantee, just as living in a foreign country doesn't guarantee acquiring cultural sensitivity or a foreign language, while those who never leave their hometown can easily acquire both of those, but it's part of the beauty of failure. Someone who has never failed at something, ever, especially if it's not for a lack of taking risks, is prone to the sort of blind spot that the wealthy and successful sometimes have against the poor and less successful (e.g. "I went to college and then did an MBA, why can't you?" or "I've never been overweight, why can't you just lose that weight?").

With the caveat that this doesn't apply to situations where someone's life was necessarily and adversely affected by a failure (though success isn't necessarily harmless either), there's beauty in having gone and failed at something, not because you tried and not because you will necessarily become a better person after examining why you failed, but because you'll learn something. You might not be able to use what you learned for material gain, but you'll learn something. You'll learn that you weren't as good as you thought, that someone else was better than you thought, that life works differently than what you thought and that you have to continue living in spite of your failure.

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