Among my gifts this Christmas was a book really I wanted, Fran Tarkenton’s “The Power of Failure: Succeeding in the Age of Innovation.”

Fran and I are about the same age and I remember watching him playing professional quarterback in the 1960s and ’70s. He was the first “scrambling” quarterback in history.

Before he came along, the quarterback would either hand the football off to a running back or drop back and pass. Nobody before him ever thought of running away from huge defensive linemen looming in to smash him into the turf.

Then years later, I heard Fran deliver a motivational message to a convention in Atlanta. I liked the things he said and the way he said them. It was one of the best speeches I had heard and, in years of journalism, I had heard plenty.

This book is about something I have long believed and have even written about in the past.

It seems we spend a lot of time and effort convincing children and those who work under us never to fail. We should do everything we can to keep from failing – always.

Some are so fearful of failure, many small children are not graded or given scores when playing sports. We can’t let them fail, doncha know? They might be hurt if you tell them they failed.

So we award “participation” trophies or give every child a blue ribbon so as not to let any of them fail.

But Fran turns that on its head. Failure is a critical part of success.

The best motivator kids can have is to see that Suzy got a better grade than they did or Johnny made the team and they did not. That just makes them try harder next time.

While I was living in Sanderson, the grandkids of Travis Roberts of Marathon were top runners. Travis and William both got cross-country scholarships to college and little brother Jesse also excels in high school.

Travis once told me that the thing that most makes him run faster is the sound of footsteps of a competitor right behind him.

Competition and failure work hand in hand at providing that needed motivation to try harder.

“Fail fast, fail cheap, succeed faster,” is at the heart of Fran’s message. For it is through failure that we can learn what doesn’t work so we can try something else that might.

After 18 years of professional football, and really starting long before he retired, Fran became a successful businessman, owning several businesses over the years, usually several at once. In fact his first “job” was when he was still in grade school delivering groceries in the neighborhood in his little red wagon. 

He writes that inveterate inventor Thomas Edison tried 10,000 things before he succeeded in making the first incandescent light bulb.

Edison said he didn’t fail 10,000 times. He succeeded in finding 10,000 things that didn’t work. He said invention is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Fran Tarkenton didn’t come out of the womb throwing a 60-yard touchdown pass. A 30-game winning baseball pitcher doesn’t throw a 100-mile-per-hour fastball the first time he touches a baseball.

Watch a young child try to throw. The ball will go wide left, then wide right, or too short or way too long. It’s only through trial and error – or trial and failure, as Fran puts it – that the throw gradually gets closer and closer to its target.

And it takes practice every day, throwing hundreds or even thousands of times a day to reach the level of success of Fran Tarkenton.

Every successful businessman has failed many times and Fran points out that those failures were critical to finding the formula that does work. Fran let many of his businesses fail when the time was right.

Don’t avoid failure. Welcome it warmly for it usually is the greatest key to success.

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