Daring To Fail - How I Use The First Pancake Rule To Find Success

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Hilda Victoria Stellgard

Failure isn’t fatal, but it IS the uncomfortable key to success.

I was 5 years old when my mother brought me into the kitchen to start cooking. At first it was cutting carrots with a butter knife, but soon enough my skills and tasks were increased to actually cooking.

It was a mid winter Saturday morning and we were making my favorite - pancakes. The electric griddle was brought out from under the stove and plugged in on the kitchen table so that I could reach it. "Now David, when the bubbles on the pancake come up and pop, it's ready to be flipped." "Okay mom."

She went to make tea, and I was dutifully watching as one, then two, then a dozen bubbles came up. The first one popped, then another, then there was one last one. It didn't pop. I waited, and waited, and it just wouldn't pop.

"David! What's burning?" "I guess the pancake, but the bubble hasn't popped."


Blackness, solid inedible blackness. I was on the verge of tears. My first pancake and I burned it. My first attempt at cooking and I blew it. I was a terrible cook and wanted to run away and never cook again.

"What happened, David?"

"Mom, the last bubble didn't pop. You said to flip it when the bubbles all popped."

“It's okay. It's the first pancake, we usually throw out the first one. In the future, ALL the bubble don't have pop, they're just a sign."

The lesson I learned that day was that first efforts can be failures but that doesn't make me a failure. First efforts can be burnt and horrible and thrown on the trash heap of history, and they lead to improvements in skills, and greater experience.

Anything that is a skill, can be both learned and improved upon. Precious few things are not skills, and the really valuable things in life, the things that will make you a happy, successful, loving and inspired person - those are all skills. Optimism, persistence, forgiveness and self-education are all skills we can develop to become the person we want to be.

My first thoughts that cold winter morning were that because I failed at a skill, it meant that I failed *as a person* and that is simply not true. At five I saw the world as all about me, and if something I did came out wrong, it meant that my existence was wrong, but that thinking, which is age appropriate for a 5 year old boy, is not the way an adult sees the world. Being able to see the longer journey, I have developed the inner strength and wisdom to try new things, to be more fearless (not totally mind you!) in starting so that when those first attempts are ugly and ungainly, I don't abuse myself being self-critical.

I've used that principle in all areas of my life. As a writer, as a lawyer, as a podcaster, as a videographer, and as a filmmaker. My first efforts were all less than stellar, but today I am confident in my efforts because I persisted past the first efforts.

It is easy to become discouraged with our first efforts - who doesn't have that critical voice in their head making judgments about the quality and value of what we're doing? The fact is that we're hard wired towards the negative. Our brains are designed to make quick decisions based on the fight or flight response for survival and while that is useful if you're out hiking in a National Forest to avoid a rattlesnake, it can become an obstacle in the safety of a home office.

When that critical voice starts speaking to me, it can be hard to quiet because it knows your weakest points, but I have found that when I don't listen to it. When I trudge onwards and get past the first of anything, the rewards start. My friend Robert likes to remind me that "getting successful sucks, being successful is awesome!"

Fifteen years ago I sat in my back bedroom and wrote my first column for the Santa Monica Daily Press. It never saw print. But I learned a lesson on that first one that I still use fifteen years and 600+ columns later - start. Just start. I literally will start typing jibberish to 'prime the creative pump' and from there, something will come that I can develop into an article. My first paragraphs often are deleted before the first save - and that's okay.

The First Pancake Rule may be the most important lesson my mother ever taught me, because it has inspired me and empowered me to try new things, when fear of those faltering first steps could stop me.

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