Cutting the Butterfly from Its Cocoon: Failure

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“Evolution’s unceasing determination to improve life from monocytes to mammals depends on clearing the deadwood, but the deadwood has its uses. Pico Iyer, a superb travel writer, has described the lotus blossom, the emblem of Buddhism, rising from the rotting residue of its ancestors. The muck, as Iyer writes, is what ‘makes the radiance possible.’” —Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Dr. Skip Eisiminger

Vintage US Army print recruitment ad.
Vintage US Army print recruitment ad.

I. “Wherever you sail, expect to capsize—
the sooner you bottom, the quicker you rise.” —The Wordspinner

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger

CLEMSON, SOUTH CAROLINA—(Hubris)—1 June 2023—I had always assumed that my existence was hard-wired in the universe; it wasn’t. Fifty years after the fact, my father, Butch, casually told me one evening that failing a required engineering course at the University of Illinois in June of 1939 meant graduating and receiving his reserve commission a year later than expected. After the bad news, he spent eight months cleaning oil drums, working in a refinery back home, looking like a scolded puppy while saving enough money to return to the university. 

I was shocked by this revelation because Dad had always been the Eagle Scout (I never made it past Second Class); he was the decorated war hero (I’d fought in the “Cold War”), and he was “the paragon of animals,” at least until he told me he’d married because his girlfriend was pregnant with me. 

The year’s delay meant that instead of being shipped to the Philippines, he was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia where he met Dorothy “Dot” Alford, the woman he would marry about a year later under the circumstances mentioned above. 

Had he gone to the Philippines, he probably would have been a casualty of the Bataan Death March and lie today in some vast and perhaps unmarked veterans’ cemetery. Lt. Robert Lathrop, a classmate of Dad’s, who’d been sent in Dad’s place to the Pacific Theater, was, in fact, killed trying to escape the Japanese later in the war. If Dad had passed “Engineering Design” the first time he took it, Dot probably would have married one of the other Benning soldiers who’d proposed to her, and the three children she had with Butch never would have been. 

As for that wiring alluded to above, the weak at heart are cautioned not to tinker with it.

Fast forward 20 years to the winter of 1960. After one quarter at Georgia Tech as a civil engineering major with a “C” in ROTC and an “F” in English 101, I walked down Peachtree Avenue on a raw evening in January and stopped at the window of an Army recruiting office. A poster of contented cows grazing in a sunny Alpine pasture was all the bait this 18-year-old needed. 

I had spent three years in Heidelberg as an elementary “student prince” during the Allied occupation, and I wanted to flee to the Vaterland as much as I wanted to leave Atlanta. The following day, terrified of becoming a “C-” bridge-builder, and unsure if I was all washed up or just flying below the radar, I cut an engineering lab, walked back downtown, caught a matinee of North by Northwest, and enlisted for a three-year tour in the US Army. 

Though I had written, I had not called my parents in Virginia until a few days later when my company commander, who’d received a letter from my father via a Tech dean, yanked me out of formation and snapped, “Phone your old man, soldier, and get rid of that book in your back pocket!” 

I enlisted because I’d been afraid, of course, that my father would make me go back to drawing hex nuts, bolts, and lock washers in that engineering drawing class I’d dropped. I also feared having to go back to an English department where we hadn’t read a single novel, poem, or play and where four misspellings in an in-class assignment spelled failure despite the superb content of my empurpled prose.

Today I wear my “F” in freshman English like the signatures of the 19th-century Indian students who matriculated at Oxford but failed to graduate. Knowing every failure should be evaluated by comparison, they appended “Oxon-failed” to their signatures. As my Georgia grandfather used to say, if you fall off your horse, pick something up while you’re down there, and study it as though that’s why you “dismounted” in the first place.

Writer Pico Iyer. (Photo: “The Art of Stillness” TED talks.)
Writer Pico Iyer. (Photo: “The Art of Stillness” TED talks.)

II. The Dogleg Path to Success

Facing the torrent, show yourself pious—
take what it gives you, cross on the bias.

The fool just dives in and churns for the shore
as if he were driven to settle a score.

Breaststroke a rough route and keep yourself skew—
be wary of snags and the line you drew.

Though the water is cold, there’s heat in hardship—
hold your head high, make the most of your long trip.

Better to drift by than crash on the shoal—
learn when to draw in to keep yourself whole.

Steeped in the river, hike back up the stream
straight for that green light on the dock of your dream.” —The Wordspinner

The idea for the poem above came from something Tom Brokaw wrote about learning to cross the Missouri River “on the bias” in nothing but his Speedos. The lesson stuck with him, as he rose, two steps forward, one back as it were, from college dropout to anchor of NBC Nightly News. Though my life was never really in danger, I once crossed an inlet on the South Carolina coast as Brokaw suggested during a mild riptide. I’d been warned about the inlet’s current that had taken the lives of a father and his two sons the summer before, but I was wearing an automobile inner tube, so I positioned myself in such a way as to get some lateral movement even as I was being swept farther out than I wished to go. It should be apparent that my brash transit “on the bias” was successful.

All lives end in failure (if one considers death a failure), but that’s a good thing because given some freedom and room to work, the next generation can profit from the failures of their ancestors and build on their successes. Evolution’s unceasing determination to improve life from monocytes to mammals depends on clearing the deadwood, but the deadwood has its uses. Pico Iyer, a superb travel writer, has described the lotus blossom, the emblem of Buddhism, rising from the rotting residue of its ancestors. The muck, as Iyer writes, is what “makes the radiance possible.”

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, National Gallery of Art. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)
Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, National Gallery of Art. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

III. “Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, struck out 2,597 times, an MLB record.”—Various Sources

I keep a picture in my files of a young man on his knees who’d passed out with his chin hooked over the leading edge of a public urinal. My hope is that when this fellow sobered up, he pulled himself together like the short list of “failures” below who ultimately succeeded, though success often came posthumously:

  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
  • Leonardo da Vinci painted his “Mona Lisa” three times before he painted her a fourth time over the other three.
  • Thirteen years before Rembrandt’s death, he declared bankruptcy. 
  • Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis was fired by a small newspaper.
  • Journalist Carl Bernstein flunked out of college.
  • Vincent van Gogh sold one painting during his lifetime.
  • Emily Dickinson published ten of her nearly 1800 poems in her lifetime.
  • George Bizet died before Carmen became a popular favorite.
  • Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus of Nazareth were widely regarded as failures during their time on Earth.

Much the same happened to Boethius, Giuseppe Verdi, Emile Zola, Winston Churchill, Soren Kierkegaard, Ludwig van Beethoven, Yukio Mishima, Mohandas Gandhi, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, and many more “starving artists.” 

I knew none of these luminaries personally, but I did know a family friend my Uncle Bob loved to “razz,” one of Bob’s favorite words and pastimes. (Our young son, for example, was always a “nasty, stinkin’ rascal.”) 

Irving, the man Bob called “Sad Sack,” was a member of his bowling team who was in Bob’s words, “bald as a bowling ball and split from his wife with nothing to spare.” Despite the bad hand “Sad Sack” had been dealt, he remarried, had three children, once bowled a 290, and started a successful business.

Image by Ian Kim via Unsplash.
Image by Ian Kim via Unsplash.

IV. “From failure comes fertilizer.”—Attributed to Many

A former colleague of mine used to fail the lowest ten percent of his class even if that percentage had an average above 70 on all assignments. The top ten percent received an “A” even if some of those had an average that most today would regard as a “C.” When the registrar’s computer placed our daughter in his introductory biology class, I recommended she drop it. Don’t get me wrong; a student has every right to fail as the Latin origin of “success” implies. To the Romans, the word literally meant “that which comes after,” implying that failure precedes success, for failure is an integral part of the process. It’s not fated; it’s just that if you do fail, it’s about average.

I imagine failure is part of the epistemic ambiguity we all live with, but It’s sad when it doesn’t recognize itself. I suspect that ambiguity is only a problem for humans because predators like the leopard know immediately when they fail because their stomach continually reminds them after every missed opportunity, and leopards miss their prey six times out of seven. As I used to tell our winless son when he was playing American Legion baseball, “Nature always bats last, but the last batter in the Atlanta lineup is still a Brave.”

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • Will

    Skip- another wonderful piece. I don’t know why, but it seems to feel particularly appropriate right now. Thanks for being such a fine teacher.

  • Skip Eisiminger

    You are welcome, Will–I owe the edge on my chops to Hubris–a great place to hone it.
    Thanks to e, I got in my 10,000th hour without a discouraging word–except for the punctuation of “BS.”