Fail Early, Fail Often

One of the great things about my little prep group is the discussions we have online. Although we do manage to meet up in person fairly regularly, most of our contact is online. Sometimes it’s just an interesting link posted to the group for comment, sometimes it’s an after-action report on something that happens to one of us – for a small group, we seem to have a disproportionate number of WTF moments, most of which seem to happen in either Walmart or Costco. Regardless of what we discuss, that constant stream of chatter is both valuable in its content and reassuring in its regularity – if we don’t hear from each other at least once a day, I get a little antsy and start wondering if everything is alright.

We recently had a thread started by Brother Harold, the details of which I won’t share. But the gist of the original post was a sense that time is growing short, and that we need to stop waiting. BH’s point, which was painfully obvious only once he expounded on it, was that both individually and as a group, we’ve all been waiting for something to happen. When I started on my journey down the rabbit hole, I used to fantasize about waking up in a ZPAW where things were brutally clear cut – no more going to work, no worries about money or college or retirement, and everything that moves and isn’t related to you is a target. OK, maybe I still fantasize about that some – I loves me my “Walking Dead,” after all – but as I’ve grown in my thinking, I’ve come to realize that waiting for the ZPAW, or pandemic, or economic meltdown, or anything at all is just an excuse to do nothing. And that’s not acceptable any more.

Another facet of waiting has to do with “analysis paralysis.” For guys like me and my prep group, it’s painfully easy to over-think everything. We analyze problems for a living, and while in our professional lives there’s an incentive to over-analyze – if you don’t and you screw up big enough, you’re out the door – ┬áin our personal lives, it comes at a great cost. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” the saying goes, and waiting for things to be perfect before doing anything is just a recipe for doing nothing. And while doing nothing was a perfectly acceptable strategy in days gone by, where you literally just had to reach that mid-career plateau so you could coast to retirement, and then run out the clock in Florida, it doesn’t work in a world where there’s a real possibility that there soon won’t be a career, or a retirement. Or maybe even a Florida.

So what’s the solution? Like the title of the post says, “fail early, and fail often.” It’s time to start doing stuff – anything! We need to start throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Some stuff will stick, some will bounce off, and some will crash and burn. But everything that we throw will at the very least serve as a learning experience. And we might actually start accomplishing something.

This is not to say that any of us has been idle – not by a long shot. Personally, my garden is twice the size it was last year, my stores are deeper and broader, and my skills are growing steadily. But I’ve been avoiding some things that I know need doing, because addressing them would be a tacit admission of failure. An example: about three years ago, I decided to build a greenhouse. I collected windows from craigslist and dumpsters until I had enough glass for a 10’x10′ structure. I wanted to make the lower half of the walls from masonry, both for thermal mass and for aesthetics, so I spent weeks digging for a foundation, mixing and pouring yards of concrete, and building walls of brick, block and stone. Winter rolled around and work had to stop, but never picked up again the next spring, or the next, and eventually all I had was a partially finished eyesore and “attractive nuisance” on my property.

And so, two weeks ago, I decided to tear it down. I rented a jackhammer and demolished the whole thing in a weekend. Gone was every meticulously laid stone, every bit of hand-mixed concrete, and the whole dream of a beautiful stone-and-timber greenhouse that would provide fresh vegetables into the winter. As I tore it down, I got a little upset thinking that I had spent probably three irreplaceable weeks of vacation time building that. But, down it had to come, because left standing it was a monument to my failure.

Now my beautiful greenhouse is a pile of rubble, ready to be used as fill for the turnaround I’m building as part of my driveway gate project, which will be the subject of a future post. So at least I still have the material, not to mention the skill that went into crafting some pretty decent masonry walls. And I left the foundation, upon which I’ll likely build a much-needed shed this fall. So it’s not a complete loss in the end.

But here’s the important part: I tried. I stretched myself well outside my comfort zone – I could have quickly and easily built a wood-frame greenhouse, but I had a different vision. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate the time-scale of such a project, but at least now I know better.

I hope my future failures are less spectacular than this one, and that my successes outnumber them by a wide margin. But failure happens, and we only truly fail when we fall and forget to pick something up while we’re on the ground. And I’d rather fail now when the price is only a deflated wallet and a bruised ego, rather than a starving child or a freezing wife.



  1. APB

    “Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing.”

    –Thomas Jefferson, letter to Martha Jefferson, 1787


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