Finding Success in Failure on American Ninja Warrior

Who inspires you most? That’s one question asked in the American Ninja Warrior application over which I didn’t expect to have so much internal conflict.

I immediately thought of my dad, but why? He was the ultimate do-it-yourself’er: imagine if MacGyver also brought home fresh deer meat and had a pet squirrel. Like any superhero, he had an arch-nemisis: our Chrysler Grand Caravan minivan. It seemed to break every weekend, which stunk for my social life as I was his obligatory assistant. Yet he fixed every single one of the myriad of problems it threw his way, most memorably unjamming the rear-seat air conditioner compressor pump with dry ice (as MacGyver would do). The vehicle became more reliable after 70,000 miles than it was new.

He seemed to know everything. Inspirational? You bet. But as a kid, growing up under the expectations to live up to the legacy he was creating, it felt like a lot of pressure. It was pressure that I didn’t want, and so I conceded. I knew then, as a teenager, that I would never be as all-around great as my father. I independently discovered and subsequently threw myself into computer programming, which in hindsight had a secondary benefit of being an emerging field and thus avoided any direct comparisons to my impeccable father. It was one thing- maybe the only thing- at which I was better.

I’m now the father of three boys. I’m a software developer and permanently telework. I’ve taken a role of caretaker in our house as my overachieving wife works longer hours than I do. I recognize how much influence I therefore have over the lives of my three sons (for better and worse), and I want to inspire them to be their best, “Every day, in every way,” as we say. But how? Is simply being my best, trying to be that perfect role model, sufficient? My dad did that and it didn’t work out the way either of us hoped. So where did he and I go wrong?

My oldest son inadvertently answered that for me when he was four years old. I was helping him with his karate homework. He loved punching and kicking his own way but was rapidly frustrated when I tried showing him the correct technique.

Karate, not coincidentally, was something I did with my father for five years as a teenager. Like everything else, he was better at it than I was. We went on to achieve our second degree black belts before I left for college, and I remember the experience fondly. I was excited to pass this experience onto my own son.

Yet my son was frustrated when training with me. He finally blurted out, “I can’t be as good as you, I’m not an adult.”

But I didn’t know the precise technique because I was older. It was from practice. Practice he never saw, trials and failures he never witnessed. He assumed my proficiency was innate to aging (if only!) when nothing could have been further from the truth.

My father learned to fix cars, tie knots, and- well, to do anything- when I wasn’t looking. I’m sure he never stopped learning as an adult, but reading a repair manual or book is academic and solo. It’s not obvious and visible to a kid who just wants to play Nintendo or ride bikes.

Kids need to see their parents learn. They need to see their parents struggle, fail, then observe how that failure is handled. Was it really a discovery of a shortcoming we can overcome? They need to learn that success is not intrinsic from growing older; it comes from having years of education, practice, and discovery. Growing up is all about this process, and unfortunately it’s not a process visibly advertised by parents who tend to operate, for efficiency’s sake, as machines repeating learned routines.

That’s where American Ninja Warrior really solidified itself as a goal for me. Low probability of success, high probability of failure, and complete unfamiliarity: it’s a perfect spectacle to attempt- as visibly as possible- in front of children, not to mention a crowd of thousands and audience of millions! Even for the best athletes- in my city, they included an Olympic gymnast, Harlem Globetrotter, and an IndyCar driver- they’re attempting the unfamiliar and near impossible.

More importantly, training for the event involves discovering shortcomings and learning how to overcome them. And that means variety in training, always trying to come up with either a new obstacle or a new technique on an old obstacle. And if my kids aren’t with me, I video all of it.

Partly this is to learn by watching myself, but mostly this is to show my kids where I started and how I learned. They, of course, love watching all the failures and successes. The TV show so beautifully conveys the difficulty of the obstacles and thus how ultimately rewarding their completion, but I want to show my kids the journey.

March 26th, 2017 at 9:45pm at the San Antonio qualifying round, I tried and failed for the first time on the real American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. I hadn’t achieved my goal or even my potential. I went out on Tick-Tock, sort of punching bag on a pendulum. Odds be damned, I expected to be a buzzer-slamming hero that night and certainly to have made it further than the second obstacle.

I couldn’t talk to my family until the next morning. They went home immediately after I splashed into the water as my 5-month-old son had been screaming for hours. All night I worried about my older sons’ reactions. It was time to start that lesson of persevering after failure, a lesson I had coached myself into believing would start after first finding success in the qualifying round.

But my five-year-old son’s very first words, as he rolled over in bed to greet me, were, “You did great, Dad! You almost beat Tick-Tock!”

I never expected my kids to be the ones calming me down, especially not from my oldest who usually exhibited a binary view of winning and losing. Lesson already learned? Coaching from mommy and grandparents? Either way, what an awesome surprise. Maybe that relaxed my nerves a bit, or maybe it was the result of having a second chance, but I returned with my family to the course as a tester on the second day where I had quite a bit more success.

We would later go out to a playground, draft up a mock obstacle course, and all be American Ninja Warriors. It’s amazing how the kids seem to learn new abilities every time we do this. That’s my training goal, too. Our training goal.

Before flying home, my dad pulled me aside to say he’s proud of me. It’s interesting how inspiration can be reciprocal, isn’t it?

With six months left to go before submitting my application video for next season, my wife is already asking if I’ve chosen a story for it. I think I have: Finding success in failure. They’ve seen me work hard, fail, and persevere, and already see that reflected in their own learning process. They’re bouncing back after falling too, never quitting. Suddenly my three-year-old is an ace on the monkey bars while my five-year-old is skipping rungs. And they’re going to see me hit a buzzer next year, believe it.

Being one’s best isn’t enough. Our new goal is to bring out the best in each other.

I love you all. Thank you for inspiring me.