[The following column by novelist Bryce Courtenay appeared in The Australian on June 28, 1991. It was hugely influential to me as a young teenager as it taught me the importance of failure being a key component of success. You can’t be afraid to fail. I haven’t been able to find a copy of it anywhere online and after rediscovering it in my files this week, I though I would post it for the world to enjoy.]
The Australian Friday June 28, 1991
Dare your genius to walk the wildest way
By Bryce Courtenay
Sometimes when giving a talk I use the expression, “Dare your genius to walk the wildest unknown way.”
Quite often people come up to me afterwards, their arms crossed and their mouths set firm as they proclaim, “Well! We can’t all be clever! some of us have to do the ordinary things! We’re not all geniuses you know!”
In fact, they’ve entirely missed the point I tried to make.
I believe that, give or take a few years of education or, if you like, intellectual experience, we all have about the same amount of brain capacity.
Some people are not born more intelligent than others: they acquire more intelligence on the way.
Intelligence is largely a matter of experience.
To learn something new is to have done something different, to have acquired a new intellectual experience.
Most people are afraid to fail, which is another way of saying most people never gain sufficient intellectual experience to succeed.
Your mind is a natural odd-job man or woman. It can be stimulated to do a lot of things or it can be dulled to concentrate on doing one thing over and over again.
Most of the really intelligent people I have come across allow their minds to wander around, looking for new jobs, new ways to pass the time.
Now if your mind is going to go walkabout or, to put it another way, if you will dare your genius to walk the wildest unknown way, nothing is more certain than you will fail and fail often.
After all, failure is the essential ingredient in success.
To have failed is the only way your intelligence can truly succeed otherwise it simply isn’t taking the wildest unknown path but simply meandering down the centre of the road.
Walking down the centre of the road is how you get by the traffic coming from both directions.
If you’re not killed outright, what is learned is never again to venture out of the front door of your mind.
But when you walk the wildest unknown way you fail in an altogether different manner. You fail spectacularly.
First you fall in a bear pit and big, bad bear jumps in after you and mauls and better you about a bit before hurling you out of the pit.
You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you’re just getting going again when a lion jumps out from behind a bush and grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you about a bit.
You’re just about live and knee deep in band-aids when you get captured by a wild man who stakes you to the ground under a bamboo shoot which grows through your body in 18 hours while a single drip of water hits your forehead every four seconds from a rock dangerously perched 20 feet above.
AFRAID TO FAIL
Because your mind is alert you work out the velocity per square inch of the deadly drip is sufficient to bring the Great Wall of China down into a pile of rubble and dust.
But the nice thing is that after each of these calamities you learn how to avoid angry bears, bad-tempered lions and wild men while learning how to cook bamboo shoots and drink the required amount of water each day to keep your system functioning at optimum.
Before you know what’s happened you’ve got a new way of seeing things. You’re not scared of the world and you know that your intellect is bigger than the problems you generally have to face in life.
Failure is critical to success.
Here, for example, is the career of a man of whom you may have heard.
At the age of 22 he’d failed in business for the first ime. At 23 he was defeated for the legislature. At 24 he failed a second time in business. But, at 25, a big year, he was elected to the legislature. He was 26 when his fiancee died, at 27 he had a nervous breakdown, at 29 he was defeated for the Speaker, at 31 he was defeated for elector and at 34 he was defeated for Congress. Although 37 was a good year and he was elected to Congress, at 39 he was defeated again.
At 46 he had a go at the Senate and was defeated. At 47 he was defeated for vice-president and at 39 for the Senate again. At 51, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States.
Lots of bears and lions, wild men, bamboo shoots and dripping water in Abe’s spectacular life.
The point to be made is this: failure is always disappointing and often saps your courage, but its alternative is not to have tried, and not to try means you are doomed anyway, utterly and eternally doomed.
It is a rare person who doesn’t sometimes get discouraged, but those people who succeed seem to have two essential ingredients in their lives.
They have a real sense of urgency as well as the ability to persevere, to prevail, come what may.
They are the people who have taught themselves to take the wildest unknown way and whistle while they walk.
The world is filled with more or less equally intelligent people, all of whom are capable of most of the tasks which lead to material success in life.
Why then do so few people actually achieve the pinnacle they aspire to as dreaming schoolkids?
The major reason is that most people have no sense of urgency. They only do things which are required of them and only if they are guaranteed payment for the task that they perform.
Success is doing things urgently and without having a written guarantee that what you do will be rewarded.
In actual fact, it often isn’t. That’s where perseverance comes in, and you determine that you will not give up until you have achieve the task you’ve set yourself.
Then you, who have no more initial intelligence than the next person, will be seen to be the one who succeeds and who does magnificently in life.
You’ll be the one they talk about as gifted and talented and rare.
The human brain thrives on experience and dies when it is only asked to perform routine tasks.
That’s what I mean when I say, dare your genius to walk the wildest unknown way.
Every time you give up or put off a task or go slow or ask “Why me?” you insult your intelligence.
Every time you take the safe and easy way you take a step nearer to the centre of the road and where the big trucks roar blindly past going in both directions.
Allow your intelligence to dream of mountains to climb and dangerous passes to cross, huge seas to navigate, things to achieve, hard things that hurt a lot and have a sense of urgency and passion.
Things that make you proud that you can’t be defeated by a mauling from the big bad bear in the accounts department or the man-eater in marketing or the wild man who runs the circus in which you are expected to be the clown.
When you dare your genius to walk the wildest unknown way you soon learn to growl like a bear, roar like a lion and frighten the bejesus out of wild men armed with bamboo shoots and skilled in water torture.
You soon learn to flap your intellectual wings, take off and soar like an eagle.