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Fear, Failure and Being a Real Man

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I had never heard of Jimmie Briggs. But now, I'll never forget his name. I was at a TEDx talk at Barnard College on November 2, All Soul's Day as it happens. The topic: Rethinking Failure.

I'll be writing more on the overall event and some of the amazing speakers who shared their wisdom, wit and insight later. But I wanted to get this down while it's still raw, and before my own fears of failure worm their way into the pure experience and gummy it up (that admission right there is proof of learning).

Jimmie Briggs took the stage as the last solo speaker of the afternoon. In a room full of women. Jimmie Briggs, who has given perhaps hundreds of talks, at schools, institutions, and fundraisers, began with some affable remarks and then launched into what was clearly a more formal speech. It renewed a niggling curiosity I'd had about how TED talks really work, because they do seem remarkably spontaneous. Having watched Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on creativity about 10 times one night when I was blocked, I found myself wondering (by the eighth viewing) how long it had taken her to memorize it, did she rehearse it? Or was there a little teleprompter somewhere I couldn't see?

Jimmie Briggs' began smoothly, explaining how as a shy kid in Missouri, he'd wanted to be a superhero, all those invincible men you see in the movies, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger ... and then he was given a handheld mike so we could hear him, and told to step forward into the light.

"See, I've already messed up..." he said, laughing nervously. He began again, repeating a little, but moving on to his choice to become a journalist. As such, he'd written about child soldiers, traveling in the desert with them, dodging gunfire, carrying wounded to safety... the stuff of superheroes. On those assignments, he'd also spent a lot of time with women who were ravaged by war, victims of rape, sexual violence, untold horrors... and about 20 years in, he'd had enough. So he quit being a journalist and started a human rights campaign, Man Up, to help these women and girls... superhero stuff.

"But three years ago yesterday," Briggs faltered. The above had been delivered smoothly in spots, spottily in others, but the veneer was cracking. He began again, stopped again, hung his head. Started saying I'm sorry I'm sorry.

And we waited.

It briefly crossed my mind that this might be a theatrical device to illustrate a point about the day's theme... but it went on too long, and too awkwardly. Tears lept to my eyes and choked my own throat, too, not out of pity, but because Briggs was tapping into that bedrock, nitty-gritty, paleolithic sedimentary layer of fear, fear of failure, fear of exposure, of being vulnerable, fear of unknown territory, that we all have, hide, ignore, implore to behave, threaten, swallow, douse or numb. But none of that was working now; emotion had taken over Briggs's rudder and it wasn't letting go.

The interesting thing was, there was no tension in the room, or judgment. Just this growing forcefield of compassion. He asked if he could just start over. Of course. So he did. And stopped again.

Various women popped up offering advice: anchor yourself to the floor, breathe, just share. I wished the first speaker, real estate mogul and ABC's Shark Tank star Barbara Corcoran, was still in the room because she had mentioned her very first talk at Citibank, where she literally lost her voice, and had to be asked to leave the stage, twice.

That did not happen here. Nathalie Molino Niño, the remarkable moderator of the event, sprang from her seat, pulled three chairs to the stage, and said, "Let's have a conversation." (The whole experience was so powerful, I began to cry again just writing this. Plus, my own past includes a calamitous first-speech experience, and it was the compassion that brought me to tears then, too, not the cruelty.)

So she, Jimmie Briggs and Briggs's speech coach, actor Isaiah Johnson, rolled out the story together -- Jimmie's life-changing experience, a heart attack that put him in ICU and kidney failure which kept him there for a month. It challenged everything he thought about himself, who he was and who he believed he was supposed to be.

Superheroes don't get sick or weak. They don't collapse on the floor in front of their 10-year-old daughter and, he feared, scar her for life. He confessed that even though his work with Man Up came from a sincere place, he also enjoyed the accolades -- GQ Man of the Year, citations, awards, and "women adore you."

But being sick, feeling weak, not in control, was not in his superhero job description, to the point where he often refused to admit he was in pain, wouldn't attend to his medical needs, and suffered for it. "I could go into a war zone, but I couldn't go into dialysis," he said. And this was the first time he was talking publicly about all this.

This situation also lifted the scrim on how a Ted talk is created; there is muscle and bone and rehearsal and craft behind every seamless performance. Briggs admitted he had asked Nathalie if he could give the speech next year, after his kidney transplant, when he was back on his feet, feeling strong, in charge again... he wanted a happy ending -- that thing we as Americans are conditioned to expect -- neat, pert, cute, clean button to the story.

But she, in her wisdom, insisted now was the time. Because that is for movies, for fake superheroes. Real superhero stories are messy. Briggs never stood again to resume his speech, instead we got to see the work in progress, the work of the talk failure, the work of the self-image failure, the work of failure and the rebuild, right before our eyes... and it was mesmerizing.

The world works in mysterious ways... so we're told. But does it? The more, the longer, I am alive, awake, acutely paying attention, I realize it's not really mysterious at all. Jimmie Briggs wasn't done learning lessons about this -- he couldn't condense it into an instructive anecdote. And the World, the Universe, whatever, took the perfect opportunity to teach him, and included many more of us in the process. He kept thanking us for our generosity, and a few days from now "when this is all over" he thought he'd be able to take it all in, see it in context.

But life, in its infinite generosity, taught us what Rethinking Failure really means, in context, unplanned, in real time. I happen to be in the middle of writing a biography of saxophonist Wayne Shorter for Biography and had found this quote: "No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?"
Rethought: Failure = Enlightenment.

Jimmie Briggs stepped forward into the light yesterday, and brought all the souls in that room with him. We learned what is it to be a real man. What it is to be women. What it is to lead, to collaborate, to support. That compassion isn't cloying and real emotion isn't trite and can't be reduced to a sound byte. We learned that Epic Fail = Epic Succeed. We learned what it is to be human. Again. Because for some reason we keep needing to learn that one.