They say with every failure comes a lesson. I’ve learned a lot of lessons. Some of them more than once.
I’m a self-learning kind of person. I’ve taught myself, through many years of trial and error, how to do all sorts of things that require actual schooling and degrees to learn properly. I don’t let “having no fucking clue about something” hold me back from just going for it, provided that I account for disaster. The genesis of that mindset came from a moment in my childhood, where I failed miserably but learned the importance of planning for failure.
For a brief period in the 80s1 there was a new building toy on the block. Lincoln Logs were easy to work with but were otherwise complete and utter shit, meanwhile Legos were versatile but enough little plastic bricks weighed too much to make items that were bottom-heavy and still portable (not to mention every Lego set’s purpose was to build just one thing). Along came Fisher-Price with a toy that combined larger building pieces that were incredibly lightweight, had solid connections between pieces, and a general “just build whatever the fuck you want” attitude. They were called Construx. And they were my jam.
What made Construx so robust for building was that connecting two pieces of plastic beams used a 6-sided connector – kind of like dice – that had little square nubs on it, where the beams would snap into. Instead of the shit-ass Lincoln Logs2 model of merely stacking things, or the Lego model of using a series of small plastic bricks, Construx used these connectors along with plastic beams that snapped into place to make nice little structures. They even had curved pieces, which was a god-send to an 80s-era Lego kid who just wanted to make curved structures without using a thousand tiny plastic bricks.
The other wonderful innovation to Construx was that they had these plastic blue panels you could snap into the skeleton of your structures. They had rectangular ones, square ones, curved ones, you name it. What didn’t occur to me at the time, but occurs to me now, is just how genius the math had to have been to make sure you always had enough panels – in the correct size/shape – to make little panels and platforms on pretty much any structure you built.
It was this combination of rigid structures and solid panels that gave young me a
genius idiotic idea : I could build wings with these motherfuckers!
The idea was simple. I’d build a basic skeletal “wing” shape, pop in a bunch of panels to make it a solid structure that could push against the wind, and I’d use two half-circle pieces with which to put my arms through. It had to work! That’s how people in cartoons built portable wings! That’s almost kinda like how a hang glider works! I was a goddamn genius!3
I set about constructing… err…. Construx’ting? Whatever! Making my awesome wings. It was mid-winter (which in Phoenix terms makes it about as cold as fall in most places) so there was a pretty good chunk of wind rolling through my backyard. Standing on my porch, wings outstretched, I could feel the wind blowing and almost moving me as I stood still. “This has to work!” I thought.
Knowing I couldn’t very well just stand there – or even just run around in circles in my backyard – waiting for the wind to just pick me up and take me away, I remembered every time I’ve seen this style of self-made wings work was when the person started up high and ran. Usually, this was a cliff of a sort. I didn’t have any cliffs in my backyard. But I did have a diving board.
I’m standing about 10 feet back from my diving board, so I could give myself a little running start, and I ran full-speed onto the diving board, jumping up at just the right point to land on the edge of the diving board and jumping again to REALLY get some height. And that part worked : I was probably 4-5 feet off the diving board when I furiously flapped my “wings” and for just a moment I thought I had achieved flight.
But I did not. I simply fell like a rock straight into the pool. In the middle of winter. While wearing all of my clothes. Smashing my Construx wings. Which I didn’t want to lose. So I had to dive down to the bottom of our 12-foot deep pool to recover the pieces. Then come up for air and do it again. For about 5 minutes.
When I was finally done picking up the pieces of my horribly stupid idea gone horribly wrong, my mom had come home. She asked why I was soaking wet and shivering. I said “I was trying to fly! I even made wings!” and she was stuck with a weird motherly decision. Does she tell her son he’s an idiot, and crush all his hopes and dreams for other hair-brained ideas that might actually work? Does she encourage this stupidity, in hopes that he “never gives up” and goes on to do Great Things?
She picked somewhere in the middle. She said “Mitchell… you should work on those wings when you’re not about to jump, fully-clothed, into freezing cold water”.
I never did re-attempt my wings project. But I learned a valuable lesson that I carry with me to this day : plan for failure. You’ll always be surprised and grateful for success, but knowing how to fail gracefully won’t destroy your motivation to try again until you get it right.