The Victory In Failure

This past weekend, my seven-year-old son, Kieran, got beat up.  Worse yet, I was forced to stand by powerless, watching the whole thing, unable to intercede on his behalf.  Thankfully, everything’s fine.  He sustained no lasting physical injuries although it may take a while for him to recover emotionally…from his very first official wrestling tournament. 

Believe it or not, at seven he’s two-to-three years behind most of the other kids his age, so he spent the majority of his three matches getting his 60 pound frame slammed and twisted into the mat.  After spending weeks building his skills and confidence, he realized within 10 seconds into the first bout that he was outmatched.  At the end of the second (of three) 60 second periods his disappointment crescendoed and erupted into tears, doubling his embarrassment.  He spent the third period struggling to keep from getting pinned with tears streaming down his face.

Personal Failure

The worst part was that he still had two matches to go, and having seen the other two kids wrestle already, we knew it wasn’t going to get any easier.  He wanted to quit and go home.  What was I to do?  Parents in the movies always have the right thing to say, but I was searching and finding nothing; that is, until I remembered Tim Tebow.

We live in Baltimore, and that means we root for two teams—the Ravens, and whatever team the Steelers are playing—but over the course of this season, our household also admittedly got wrapped up in Tebow fever.  We’re suckers for underdogs and comebacks.  But what impresses me the most about Mr. Tebow is not his ability to win, but his grace in failure and his impervious defense against capitulation.  Whether deified in victory or discarded in defeat, he seems to maintain the same sincere posture of positivity, even after Denver’s 45-10 loss to the Patriots.

Kieran indeed lost his final two matches, but got successively stronger in each.  In the third, his dedication even earned him a couple points against a far superior opponent and a small cheering section of coaches, parents and teammates anxious to affirm his courage in the face of sure defeat.  He carried himself with respect and a sincere smile on his face to the fourth place (out of four) podium.

Financial Failure

Kieran’s story has little to teach us about money, but much about failure.  In no period since the Great Depression has financial failure been so widespread and felt with such impact.  There are those, like my son, who did everything they could to improve their chances of success, but lacking a certain level of experience or knowledge found themselves pinned down by the weight of decisions that turned on them.  Even many of those eminently qualified and gifted—like my friend and financial planning colleague who bared his soul sharing the story of his real estate blunders during the crisis—were humbled in defeat.

Losing your home, losing your job, or losing your ability to retire due to market losses is harder to handle than losing a football game or a wrestling match.  Failure of this magnitude can be absolutely crippling.  But it is, indeed, possible to gain something from losing.

The Depression Baby generation became the best savers in U.S. history (see Beyond Our Means, Princeton University Press, 2011).  Foreclosure and bankruptcy have spawned inspired financial counsel that has changed the lives of millions for the better (see Dave Ramsey).  Many job losses have imbued the aggrieved with enough frustration towards corporate hierarchy that they’re becoming our next wave of innovative entrepreneurs (see report by the Kauffman Foundation).  And market losses have encouraged the first generation of early retirees to pursue meaningful vocations they’re happy to perpetuate over occupations they were racing to end.

I’d love to know what you have gained through loss or failure, so please share in the comments section if you’re willing.

(This wasn’t the only emotional experience I had with Kieran this past weekend relating to sports and somehow, in my mind, things financial.  I wrote about the other in my Forbes blog this week—you can read “What Do NFL Playoffs And Money Have In Common?” by clicking HERE.)

The Value of Football (and Money)

Tim's son Saturday night after the AFC playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, my seven year old son, Kieran, and I were sprawled out across the sofa in a coma of disappointment.  Clad in our purple and black jerseys bearing the names and numbers of our favorite players, we lay…silent.  Kieran was obviously on the verge of tears, so I finally mustered the courage to speak and asked him if he was OK.

He responded, “Dad, I’m sad that the Ravens lost, but I’m sadder that you yelled so much.”

He was right.  As the Ravens benefited remarkably from Steelers miscues in the first half, I demonstrated “irrational exuberance,” and as their game plan devolved into an NFL follies reel in the second half, I came unhinged.  As I processed this unintentional admonition from my son—who was likely most interested in the game simply because of the opportunity to spend time with his dad—my conscience initiated a discussion:

 Conscience:  “You know that football, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t actually important or inherently valuable, right?”

Tim:  “Don’t be silly—of course it’s important and valuable!  Coaches and players engage in healthy competition, putting their wits and bodies to the ultimate test!  Tens of thousands of people engage in vigorous community at every game!  Entire cities, divided in so many ways, come together in unity to support their team!  Families and friends break bread and engage in fellowship around the game!  What’s wrong with that??”

Conscience:  “I didn’t say anything was wrong with football.  I didn’t say it was bad.  I said that it wasn’t important.”

Tim:  “OK, so what about all that great stuff I said about community and cities and relationships benefiting from the game?”

Conscience:  “All that stuff is good and important.”Tim:  “But not the game itself, or its outcome?”

Conscience:  “Right.  And by the way, what of that goodness did you demonstrate or share with Kieran during and after this game?”

Tim:  (Sigh) “Right.”

Conscience:  “But it’s ok.”

Is there anything in your life that isn’t important that you’ve placed above something that is?  How about MONEY?  What is it worth?  What is its inherent value and import?

NOTHING.  The money in our pockets, purses, banks and investment accounts is actually of no genuine value.  It’s literally worth only what we’re willing to believe it’s worth.  This is true…even if we choose to deny it (and too often, I do).  In the early 1970s, the U.S. went off of the “Gold Standard,” which pegged every dollar’s value to a certain amount of the tangible yellow stuff.  Since then, we, as do most countries in the world, have a fiat money system.  This basically means that our government prints money that we, as consumers, agree to BELIEVE has value.

But while money and football have no inherent value (I’m still struggling to write that), neither are they intrinsically good or bad.  When properly viewed and balanced, football delivers an excellent platform for building strength, conditioning, teamwork and community (and controlled exuberance).  Similarly, when the neutral tool of money is used to good effect, it provides, security, opportunity, aid for the underserved and myriad occasions for relational enhancement.

So neither football nor money are good or bad or important or of inherent value.  When overvalued, they have a tendency to stand in the way of that which is truly valuable—RELATIONSHIP—but when employed with wisdom and understanding, the result is a fuller and more vibrant life.

(For the pragmatist unnerved by the philosophical leanings of this post, please note that those who effectively neutralize football and money, aiming for a goal loftier than winning and amassing, often tend to win and have more.)

Defense Wins Championships

The fall is, without a doubt, my favorite time of year. And a not-so-insignificant element of that is the joy that fills my heart when huddled around my parents’ television on a Sunday afternoon with my family, a belly full of “linner” (a lunch big enough to be dinner) and the smell of apple pie wafting over a group of adults and children yelling in unison at the images of modern day gladiators chasing around an odd-shaped leather ball.  Football is philosophy… and some of that philosophy translates especially well in our personal finances.