My stroke box contains a cutting from the local newspaper of a column written by Leonard Pitts in 1997 in which he describes a television commercial featuring a man arriving for a basketball game. The stride of the latter is easy as
he walks the gauntlet of fans, his smile secretive and knowing. He walks like a winner.
Yet in the voice-over he says, “I’ve missed more than 9 000 shots in my career. I’ve lost more
than 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot - and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The man is Michael
Jordan who, in the words of Pitts, “shackled gravity and courted flight, who made the impossible seem routine and the merely difficult look easy.” And, ignoring for a moment the fact that the commercial was for over-priced athletic shoes,
Jordan was arguing that failure is why he succeeded. Failure is the price of excellence.
This is the time of year when, with our hearts in our mouths and with feelings of apprehension, we open the hives after
a long winter. Most of us are going to find that some of the girls have not survived and I for one never quite get over the feelings of sadness that come with the sight of those little motionless, fuzzy butts sticking out of the cells in unison,
often with a frame of capped honey only inches away, and the pile of blackened dead bees on the bottom board.
The truth is it happens to us all, and some would argue that it is an essential weeding-out process by mother
nature. But it is often the first major obstacle faced by a new beekeeper. In terms of the Gartner-Hype Cycle we typically begin a process like beekeeping with eagerness and suspense, quickly reaching the ‘peak of inflated expectations.’
The bees who came with the package survived, the queen laid in a good pattern, the girls took all of the sugar syrup we fed in the fall ... and then they die. This ‘trough of disillusionment’ is where as many as 50% of new beekeepers decide
not to continue. The heartbreak, the disappointment, is too much.
Those who continue cite two things for their decision to do so. The first is a mentor, a fellow beekeeper, who assures them this is the norm,
that they are not a ‘bad person’ because their charges died. I’m struck by how readily Jim Tew, writing in Bee Culture, describes his failures without being shamed by them, as if to give us permission to fail as well.
The second is a local bee association where new beekeepers can hear stories from experienced pros about winter losses, told without rancor or guilt. The message is “Welcome to our club - having lost a colony you are now truly one of us” and
there is support for the self-doubt that can understandably accompany these losses.
I would add a third - an ability to see failure as an integral part of success - and rather than become despondent, to see this as motivation
for a revitalized effort with the renewed that comes from a challenging experience. Those who make this transition begin what the Gartner-Hype cycle labels ‘the slope of enlightenment’ which is when the real learning begins. It is
gradual, it is real and it is experiential.
Pitts describes a scene from a Michael Jordan clip : “He fakes left, goes right, elevates to the hoop, finds a man in his path, spins in midair,
throws the ball backwards over his head and scores.” The crowd roars, the announcers are breathless, and the viewer wonders ... how?
I don’t know what the beekeeping equivalent of faking, blocking,
spinning and shooting are, but I do know that better beekeeping practice comes from constant work - reading the newsletter, the journals and the books, talking with one’s peers, going to conferences, reflecting on the notes one makes in the bee yard...
We talk about talent, we nod our heads to luck, but so often we ignore the most important things - the hard work, the unceasing push to be a little better than the day before ... and the many failures.
Jordan’s case that moment was built on thousands of others that only he can know, those moments in which he paid his dues away from the cameras so that he can walk like a winner on his way to the locker room.