When There’s Nothing to Learn from Failure
You’ll likely note right away that this is a deviation from my standard fare, but it’s an experience I wanted to share. Hopefully, you can find it helpful. But I also hope it’s not something you can identify with too closely.
There may be a time in life when a confluence of cataclysmic events conspires against you to result in failure. At the end of it, when you’re surveying the damage, you may be left wondering what you can learn from failure. And the answer may very well be, “I have no idea.”
In 2007 I purchased a small house in Warrior, Alabama (a small town about fifteen miles north of Birmingham). It wasn’t a particularly nice house, but it was the best I could do at the time. And I was tired of paying rent, so it was time to buy. Besides, in 2007, we were all still operating under the supposition that property values only ever appreciate.
I asked the advice of all the right people and received assurances that this purchase was a good decision. My now-wife Anna and I were dating and had been for a couple years, but at least one of us (me) wasn’t quite ready to discuss our forever future. Had I been ready to have that conversation, I expect Anna would have told me this wasn’t a house she could envision herself living in.
So I bought the house, made some improvements, and moved in. About nine months later, Anna and I got engaged. Shortly after that, we started looking at a garden home in another town, which we ended up purchasing. That was the summer of 2008.
I put my house up for sale, where it stayed for more than six months. The market had begun to turn. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were at the front end of the Great Recession. Month after month, my house sat empty and for sale, with very little traction.
Eventually, I listed it for rent. I found tenants fairly quickly. And just in time too. Anna and I got married in the summer of 2009, and I started law school two months later. The tenancy situation went well…until it didn’t. Several months before their contract was up, the tenants just stopped paying rent. I got promises of good intentions to get caught up, but those never materialized. They left and the house sat empty again. I tried to sell it. Nothing. I sold my motorcycle to pay the mortgage for a few months. Then I found more tenants.
The new tenants ended up staying in the house for more than four years. The bulk of that time went pretty well. But when it went bad, it did so in a hurry. They abandoned the place still owing seven months back rent. They left behind the majority of their possessions (everything from clothes to family photos to baseball cards), including a refrigerator full of food, but with no power to it. I should have known better than to open that refrigerator door, but now I’ll forever have emblazoned in my olfactory sense the odor that assaulted me. Piles of garbage in the back yard, and a garage filled with more of the same.
Once I cleared out the rubbish, I was left with a rundown house that was going to take several thousand dollars to get back into any kind of presentable condition. But I was out of money. By this time, I had gone nine months without any cash generation from the property. We were staring financial ruin in the face. There were innumerable nights that I lay in bed after the house was quiet and prayed that a lightning strike would burn the place to the ground. God has worked his will by fire before – why not now?!
Then I got an offer to sell. But the buyer was only offering about 60% of what I had paid for it. Accepting that offer would mean taking a huge loss. A loss that I couldn’t manage. Yet everyone I sought advice from said it was time to cut my losses. My folks stepped up to help me with the financial loss I was incurring. And I agreed to sell the albatross that had been saddled around my neck for the better part of seven years. I still haven’t calculated the total amount of money I’ve sunk into that house and lost. I don’t think I will.
So here I am at the end of this particular episode of my life – I hesitate to even call it a journey, since my experience has been that journeys are intentional – and I’m wondering, “What can I learn from this?”
I did all the things you’re supposed to do before making a big decision. Prayed over it. Asked the advice of people with more experience and wisdom than me. Yet for years I was burdened with this house that placed a considerable amount of mental, financial, and emotional strain on me and my family. At the end, I’ve gotten rid of the house, but it’ll be years before I can be rid of the financial aftermath. So what have I learned? How can I not make this mistake again? I’m still not quite sure.
I’m reminded of a scene in Burn after Reading, in which after a series of unforeseeable calamities, two CIA officers are reflecting on the situation. The superior officer asks his subordinate what they learned from the events that had just unfolded. The subordinate replies, “I don’t know, sir.” And the superior responds, “I don’t ——- know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.”
One my takeaways from this experience has been that you can do all the things you ought to do, but sometimes stuff just goes sideways. So I’ll just keep pushing until I get to the other side, and hopefully, learn not to do it again. Because when there’s nothing to learn from failure, you just persevere.
That perseverance is multi-faceted. I will persevere in my faith. I don’t believe in a “prosperity gospel”. I know that not all of my life experiences work together for my immediate good, but as a Christ-follower, I believe they are orchestrated for my ultimate good. I will persevere in my work. This debacle was a setback, and it’s going to take a while to dig out from it, but rather than the failure of it being a defining occasion, I am endeavoring to leverage it into an inflection point. But in order to do that, I’ll have to just persevere.