I have a really good relationship with my father, which is super cool considering I grew up when Black fathers were eviscerated by media for being no-shows. Every rapper was telling stories about their dad’s not being around, worthless, and worse. Not me, even before I moved in with him, he was always a phone call away, and widely considered cool by grownups and kids alike. That to say, I looked up to my dad, and when out of earshot, assumed he was right about everything. When I moved in with my dad I wasn’t very well traveled or in tune with the sayings of the world. Other than the all-time hits, I was in the dark. He on the other hand, knew the hits and the ones I believed were obscure as hell. Then one day, for probably the first time in my life I thought my hero was losing his marbles. The phrase that came out of his mouth was baffling to my young mind, and I couldn’t believe he was on board with it.
Make it make sense
Granted, I don’t even recall the exact set of circumstances that led to this moment, likely because the phrase had me dumbfounded in being a real saying. This man told me out of his mouth into my ear holes “nothing beats a failure but a try”. In that moment, my brain malfunctioned trying to find the wisdom in this weird ass saying. After a few seconds of pondering, I determined this doesn’t make sense at all, he’s making this one up to mess with me. I believe it was the following school year around testing time, my teacher said the same thing, and I was again dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe another human being knew this crazy saying, meaning my dad wasn’t messing with me. I told my dad when I went home, and he assured me again it was a real saying. I have since heard it more times than I can count, but I stand firm in believing this is one of the dumbest sayings known to man.
I’ll use this whole paragraph to show my mental process trying to decode this phrase. The intent behind it is noble…an urging to not give up, but the order of the words combined with the meaning of the words sounds like drunk talk. Nothing beats…means everything loses to whatever comes next, understood. A failure…an unsuccessful attempt at something, losing me but I’m on board still. But a try…but an attempt to do something, #$%^$#^##@#@%$. Does not compute. It wasn’t until several years later, adulthood and fluency with the internet set in, that I was able to get to the bottom of this mysterious phrasing.
Searching for sense
I don’t know if there is an instance that predates this, but I believe the saying comes from Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In it, the saying is “Then nothing beats a trial but a failure. Give it everything you’ve got”, which is interpreted by the author as words of encouragement to persist in the face of adversity. Given the context, and order it makes way more sense. The first part of this phrase, simply spoken as a response, does not translate to words of encouragement as the warped version that gained widespread popularity would imply. Though, the order is better. I can agree that failure beats trying in the first place. Failure means you’ve seen something through to the end, albeit unsuccessfully. However, successful attempts beat failure for sure. Sometimes it takes repeated trial and error to be successful, and even so, success is never guaranteed, but when it comes, that is certainly better than failing again.
What is interesting about all of this, to me at least, is that this nonsensical saying drove me to find sense in it. For years, I failed to understand how this saying made any sense to all these smart people. Even though I wrote them off as crazy, I continued trying to make sense of these words because I respect the intellect of most of the people that uttered this phrase to me. Had I known as a kid, I would’ve just read the book and come to this realization a long time ago. What’s really strange is, I’m relatively sure many of the people that told me these words, read that book at some point. They may have simply missed the connection, or their mind filled in the blank with the repeated phrase out of familiarity. Who knows?
Now, I am as old as my father was when he told me that phrase, and I’m able to say, “that saying isn’t quite right”. I’m glad that the saying is a bit off though. Had it made sense, I likely would’ve forgotten it and my quest to validate the people I respect would be nonexistent. I tell my daughter stuff all the time and I’m sure most of it falls on deaf ears whether it makes sense or not. I can only hope that all of these life lessons, sayings, and stories I gained from my parents and others will stick with her like they did me. Perfection isn’t required for success unless you’re building space shuttles. All in all, I think I turned out alright, and I have many imperfect people to thank for it.