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  • Writer's pictureDion Cunningham

Failure: Life's Constant Companion

It is en vogue in today’s world to always put one’s successes on display. This is especially so in the developed world. One always has to be seen as working, producing, studying, training, practicing, accomplishing, overcoming, and achieving. The weight of success looms over us.

From our initial entry to planet Earth, we are spanked in order to achieve our first breath. Then we have to learn to walk, say our first word, write our first letter of the alphabet, get a perfect score on our first test. Later on, we have to graduate at the top of our class, get into an Ivy or a D1 school, get in our professor's good graces. As adults, we have to get married, have kids, scale the corporate ladder, make our first six and seven figures in our chosen professions. It is exciting and adrenaline spiking. And when you scroll the social media platforms of those in your spheres and those you follow, you are led to believe that you are not doing enough. That you, in the words of a good friend of mine from Chicago, “suck at life.”

But the truth is……you do suck at life. You have failed. You have fallen short. And because of this inconvenient truth, you resolve never to share that side of your reality to keep up appearances. Well, I'm tired of keeping up appearances. So here it goes....

I want you all to know that I have failed continually throughout my life. There is no week, month, year or season in my life that failure hasn't touched. Yet despite my familiarity with it and developing expertise at it, failure never feels good. And those feelings are compounded when these failures are thrown in one’s face by others - particularly by those who somehow think these ‘tear-down’ sessions should serve a source of inspiration. Where on earth did we get that warped mindset?

There’s a saying that goes, “Be the change you wanna see.” So I’m gonna expose myself here today by itemizing some of my top 100 failures. The list grows regularly. And maybe in subsequent writings I will explain some of them in excruciating detail. Today ain’t that day though. But I’ll give you 20 of Dion’s top 100. 1. I failed to breathe on my own at birth. (And yes, I got spanked :) 2. I failed in my first game of musical chairs. (It was a McD’s Birthday party and it was my 4th birthday. Gave me an appreciation of the song “It’s my part and I can cry if I want to.” Ask Mum for the videotape as proof.) 3. I failed my Grade 1 Music Exam. (You can go ahead and ask Trinity College of London to confirm. Not a promising start to a musical life).

4. I failed to break 1 minute in my first 50 meter freestyle race. (And yes, that's slow for the 8 and under age group) 5. I failed to win my first speech competition. (I was in 6th grade and it was a choral speaking competition. I was reciting the poem “Anansi.”) 6. I failed Grade 6 General Science and Social Studies. (Don’t know how I survived capital punishment at the hands of Lord and Queen Cunningham). 7. I failed to keep my virginity. (In my defense it wasn’t by choice). 8. I failed my first art assignment in high school. (Didn’t know that was possible. Learned to “trace my way through” after that though). 9. I failed to make any real lasting friendships in my high school. (The one guy who I considered my best friend in high school won’t reply to my messages to this day). 10. I failed to get a Merit Scholarship (or any scholarship really) when I graduated high school. 11. I failed English 120 and Math 168 in my first year at COB. (Now the University of the Bahamas). 12. I failed first-year chemistry at Macalester College. (Honestly, so did a few other people. MAC was a really tough school. But as a Biology Major?? Not good bruh!).

13. I failed to get a job as a teacher with the Ministry of Education after college. (Didn’t realize that kinda thing happened in the Bahamas. Until it did.)

14. I failed my first 3 Auditions for Music School. (U of Maryland, U of Miami and Manhattan School of Music). 15. I failed my first recital hearing in my doctoral program.

16. I failed in my first and second serious relationships. (Listen, these _____ ain’t loyal). 17. I failed to keep my graduate assistantship. (Got fired in my 3rd year. And things got really rough after that).

18. I failed in all 3 attempts of leading the choir ministries at my local church. Those choirs no longer exist today. (Dear GMS, If you’re reading this, it’s all up to you. No pressure :)

19. I failed in all my attempts to get a research fellowship. (And yes, this includes undergrad through post-doc).

20. I failed in preparing my first and second cohorts of students for the IB Music Exam. (This one still flabbergasts me to this day. Please, I want another chance if you’re reading this).

Bonus 21. I failed my first performance of a romantic concerto last December. (The performance didn’t go nearly as well as the rehearsal the day before. Too many technical slips. So in my mind it was a failure.)

So there you have it folks! Dion, the consummate failure! And yes, I’ll take my bow now.

But I’m a strange creature and I’m only just becoming comfortable with that reality. But that’s a whole other topic. The truth is that I have never been drawn to the things that come relatively easy. I am inherently a risk-taker. You see, it is precisely the things I fail at, the hard and difficult tasks that make them worthwhile pursuits - at least in my mind.

And I think that is what keeps bringing me back to the musical field - and particularly to the piano. I am daily coming face to face with the "brick wall" of my limitations in their totality my physical, mental, emotional, visual and communicative shortcomings. And daily I encounter this 1000+ lbs structure of wood and steel against which I continually knock my fingers literally and my head figuratively. I am happy that I’ve had a few days in my musical life where I’ve been able to wear a groove or break off a shard from those “knocking sessions” and make real breakthroughs. And those days bring an euphoria that makes the often monotonous pursuit of artistry worthwhile.

I look forward to more breakthrough days across other areas of my human existence. And while I may ultimately fall short of the gold standard of “success” when all is said and done, just maybe I can manage to dodge the label of a “failure.”

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Oct 22, 2022

Well I sure know you aced this post. Well written Dr. Cunningham. An A grade for sure.

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