Friday, October 15, 2010

On Brooks Conrad and learning to fail

I am a huge baseball fan, and there is no finer time of year than the playoffs. It has a totally different vibe than the regular season. Especially when you are there live: compared to the relaxed cadence of a normal Sunday afternoon ballgame, a playoff game has an edgy urgency, in front of a packed house that hangs on every pitch.

Given the knot I feel in my stomach sitting in the stands as a fan, I can only imagine what it is like being one of the 18 men out there in the arena. Some of them are probably locked in doing a job they have done well for years. Others, being human, get caught up in the tension of an atmosphere where one team ultimately succeeds and the other goes home in defeat. And more often than you think, games are decided by human errors that you rarely if ever see during the regular season.

I was thinking of that tense playoff vibe this week reading about Brooks Conrad, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer who suddenly found himself on baseball's biggest stage. Thanks to injuries to two of the star players on the Atlanta Braves' depth chart, he ended up playing second base in a key playoff game – and committed a record three errors, the last of which bobbled a routine play that turned a certain victory into a last-minute defeat. Atlanta bowed out of the playoffs shortly afterward, and after the game Conrad stated that he wished he could "dig a hole and go sleep in there."

So picture this: you have devoted your entire life to becoming a baseball star, enduring years of bus rides and bad food, and finally make it to the top – only to see your moment in the sun drowned out by a chorus of boos, and your name going into the wrong side of the history books. Red Sox great Bill Buckner experienced it when a routine ground ball rolled through his legs to keep the Sox from winning their first World Series in nearly 70 years, and Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood gained a lifelong nickname of "Wide Right" when the Bills lost a Super Bowl on his missed last-second field goal.

So what fascinates me in cases like these – where people fail on some of life's biggest stages – is where they take their lives from there. Some take it on the chin and move on. Like 1993 World Series goat Mitch Williams, who became a respected sports broadcaster, or Buckner, who had a long and distinguished tenure as a baseball coach. Others did not fare so well, like when baseball's Donnie Moore committed suicide three years after surrendering a climactic home run in the playoffs.

What is the difference? In my view, something I call "leaning in" to mistakes. When I was training to become a therapist, I went through an exercise where someone would intentionally criticize my therapy work in front of a group, and I was instructed to simply acknowledge or agree with him. ("You're right. I really did mess that up. In fact, you should have seen me last week – I was even worse! That must have been a really bad experience for my client.") Then the group points out how well you come across by openly discussing all of this criticism.

This was a life-changing experience for me. In a very real sense, my "new toy" over the last three years has been learning to lean into other people's criticism without getting defensive. It works beautifully for other people as well, even in their worst moments. Williams, for example, has made it a point to freely acknowledge and talk about his mistakes in the World Series for years, to the point where he became a welcome and respected figure in the same Philadelphia he lost the Series for.

Nowadays I am often on stage in front of large audiences, sometimes hundreds of people. The vast majority of the time it goes swimmingly. Other times I kick it wide right. Like the time I invited someone on stage to role-play an angry patient with me, and she just got angrier and angrier as she taunted my well-rehearsed techniques. Or the time I name-checked the wrong sports team in the wrong city and was drowned out by a chorus of boos.

I have found that when I lean into these situations with gusto, they usually turn out just fine. The angry person, for example, soon taught both me and the audience a lot about what it's like about her work with challenging people like drug addicts, and it was a great learning experience for all of us. And the sports gaffe led to a productive discussion on what their team does right. Ironically, I feel my worst mistakes often lead me to rave reviews and more business by the time I'm finished.

So smile, Brooks Conrad. Own what happened and lean into it. And then come back next year – or ride off into the sunset – proud of having gotten into the arena to make these mistakes. You'll be fine.

No comments: