For the last two years I have been thinking, researching, and writing about failure. This examination has been both on a personal level, and abstractly in viewing individual and corporate failure.
My focus has been how we can learn individually and collectively from failure.
We all have set backs or failures, which we can pivot from and euphemistically label as learning opportunities. While I’m a believer in overcoming challenges and that failure, when interpreted correctly, can offer valuable insights and information to help you move forward, some failures are beyond intervention or mitigation, beyond the virtue of a positive attitude and beyond the reach of hard work.
I’m speaking of biological failures that science has yet to mitigate. These are not generic failures, they are not metaphorical or temporary. They are immoveable and I have not only seen these genetic failures but have experienced them.
Through my researched I created cognitive bias tools to help you learn from failure, however this learning only accounts for learning from generic failure. I’ve not seen, nor have explored how to learn from genetic failure.
This is probably due to avoidance as a way to cope with a post traumatic stress disorder . In an effort to help me process those events, please forgive and allow me to indulge in a bit of person reflection. Let me set the stage. As a newly marriage couple and at the age of 30 I was preparing mentally for fatherhood. We lived in Seattle and I was fresh out of graduate school and had my first real professional job.
On July 30th 1998 we welcomed our first son into the world. He was so tiny, only 4 pounds 14 ounces, but to us he was perfect. After he was born he didn’t take any food that night, a surgeon was called and we had an early morning consult. Then they took our son Ian-Connor for tests.
I was waiting for the first surge of rush hour traffic to subside and then planned on coming to the hospital around 9 am. My wife called and she told me to come to the hospital now. When I got to the hospital my wife and the surgeon were already discussion the options. The Doctor recommended surgery, they suspected intestinal blockage, indicated by the numerous ultrasounds performed. The situation was real and serious. In less than 24 hours he was whisked away to surgery.
Physicist say that time is relative, an illusion of our nervous system. What we experienced that day seemed to stretch time and draw out minutes to feel like hours. The world around us was slower and time stood still.
The surgery was over and successful. The surgeon, who was named Ian, was able to remove the blockage, but one third of his intestine had to be removed also. The blockage had stretched the intestine so much that it was useless and had to be taken out. This was particularly bad because Ian-Connor had a short intestine to start with and so now he had only about half of what he should have.
The next complication was that part of the intestine that had never been used was very small because it had never been stretched with the blockage of mecomium. The trick was how to fit that section with the section that was too stretched out. It was like hooking a pencil and a hot dog together with no gaps or holes. After the surgery all we could do was wait and see.
The really bad news he kept until last. The surgeon had seen this kind of blockage before. He was almost certain that it was caused by Cystic Fibrosis. We were not totally unprepared for this; my wife’s OBGYN had told us when we first found the blockage that it could be caused by 5 or 6 different things, one of which was CF. We had latched onto CF for some unknown reason. Of all the things that the doctor told us CF was the one that we researched and obsessed about. So while we were not totally surprised we were still shocked by the reality of this childhood disease, of which there is no cure. The surgeon went on to explain that this genetic disease is common in Scandinavian heritage and common in insular communities such as among Mormons and Jews.
We were told not to worry until the DNA test came back confirming Cystic Fibrosis, but as any parent who had been given bad news knows; being told not to worry is the most ridiculous and pointless of all advice.
Phone calls were made to family and friends that day and many payers were spoken in our behalf. Stunned and shocked by these turn of events as I drove home that night to attend to our dog I was feeling overwhelmed and devastated. Perhaps it was my ego or my need to be strong I didn’t show much emotion in front of my wife. But once alone, in the dark, driving in the moderate rain of Seattle I plead aloud to God for my Son.
I begged for his life. I pleaded for help, I bargained dramatically to spare our son. I didn’t receive comfort from this pleading, just physical and emotional withdraw. I didn’t expect a divine manifestation of reassurance; I just wanted to be heard to be understood by my Father in Heaven. It was a pivotal moment in my adult life.
Neither my wife nor I could comprehend nor anticipate what would happen the next day, the next week or the next few years. We didn’t foresee what good or bad times that lay ahead. For me, I had to learn to let go of what he could no longer control. The events within two days changed the course of our lives forever. We both learned that our family was the most important thing in this world and the world to come. Those events changed the choices that we would make.
Okay, so what is the point of that story in the context of this article about genetic failures?
CF is a terminal genetic disease passed down from parent to child. After the diagnosis I felt like a genetic failure and there was really nothing that I could do about it. This was my new life and this was my son’s life. The point is that sometimes your circumstance are beyond your control. Where you grew up, who your parents are and how they parented you are factors that are beyond your control. As so is the genetic characteristics that you inherit.
What I learned and I’m still learning is that you should not spend your energy complaining or blaming others for genetic or environmental factors that may have impeded your ability to succeed. Instead your strategy is to build a system for success within the context of your existing world and then move forward.
There are circumstances that cannot be changed. My prayers at the beginning of this journey have not been answered by deus ex machina intervention. But what has happen is far more important. I have learned that although we may not be able to change the circumstances of our lives we can change how we perceive and maneuver within them.
The academic debates about nature vs. nurture that I learned about in college are not abstract in my life, nor in the lives of my son and family. These genetic failures are double edged. My genetic abnormalities are one part of the equation that caused this terminal disease for my son. In turn my son now lives with the consequences of these genetic traits.
Watching my son Ian-Connor grow from a child to a young adult has also shown me how he overcomes his genetic predispositions that have shaped his life. He can rightly declare that many of his choices in his live have been predetermined based upon his genetic gestalt.
Although I believe there is merit and truth in the maxim “we are born this way” and genetically predisposed from nature with deep and immoveable boundaries and characteristics; nevertheless my perspective has expanded to embrace the possibility that despite the genetic alimonies that may affect our lives we can be more and we can make choices that change the course of our lives.
This perspective was greatly influenced by the research of Psychologist and Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck’s who identified two mindsets: fixed versus growth.
Her research suggests that people with fixed mindsets believe things such as intelligence, character and creative ability are innate and immutable. In other words, no matter how much they study or how much effort they exert, they’re pretty much stuck with the cards they’ve been dealt. Because people with fixed mindsets believe their potential is capped, they avoid challenges that test their abilities.
On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe the brain is a muscle that can grow, and abilities are assets to be nurtured through hard work. People with growth mindsets believe that what they are born with are raw materials-a launching point. As a result, they thrive on challenges.
At the core of a growth mindset on talent is neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to reorganize itself with learning. It requires not just working at what you know, but pushing past into areas that stretch your knowledge and skills. A favorite quote of Dweck’s: “Anyone who’s never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
“A fixed mindset doesn’t tell you what to do next,” said Dweck. “It provides no recipe for recovering from failures,” which makes it tough to take on new challenges where stumbling is possible or even likely.
It is fortunate that mindset is not a genetic attribute. In is within the realm on phycology and personal choice.
We may be born with a genetic traits and those predisposition may be failures, as compared to the typical and normal genome. I believe the final frontier of human existence is both a biological revolution that includes physiology and a cognitive realignment of what is possible.
What I have learned is that the capacity of the human spirit can create new pathways around, over and through these barriers. We may have genetic failures and even environmental failures. All of these factors do not predict or doom you to a life within the framework of your limitations. You can break out and like any other failure, a genetic failure when interpreted correctly can be used to build yourself beyond what you and others might think are your limitations.
In 2017 our son graduated from high school and then two days later left home to work for the summer at Boy Scout camp. Worried? Yes. Excited about what he can and will learn about himself? Yes!