Erik Compton and the Importance of Failure

I was listening to a sports psychologist talking on the radio the other day about failure.  It came shortly after the U.S. Open Golf Championship at Pinehurst, where a golfer named Erik Compton tied for second.  This psychologist wasn’t talking about Compton failing to win the tournament, he was using him as an example of how failure can prepare us for success.


You see, Erik Compton is on his third heart.  When he was nine years old he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.  His heart muscle was inflamed and unable to work hard enough to do its job.  For four years, doctors tried to treat his condition with medications – steroids, to be specific.  If you’ve ever had to take massive doses of steroids, or know anyone who has, you know how they can ravage the body in their attempt to heal it.  Erik’s features became bloated and grotesque, and this at a time when kids are trying to find themselves, to fit in with the world around them.  Erik didn’t fit, and in the way children can be exquisitely mean, he was often taunted and ridiculed because of his appearance.

By the time he was twelve, it was obvious the steroids weren’t going to work, and so doctors gave him a new heart and a new lease on life.  He became a golfer, a very good one, with a college scholarship to the University of Georgia.  When he graduated, he turned professional – playing on mini-tours, then the Nationwide Tour, and even a handful of tournaments on the PGA Tour.  He won some, and could see a bright future ahead as a professional.

Then came the big setback.  His second heart began to fail, and in 2008 he had another transplant and had to start all over on the long road to physical recovery and his quest for a life on the links.  You could say that when Erik Compton finished his final round at Pinehurst earlier this year, tied with Rickie Fowler for second, he had finished the journey.  No matter that Martin Kaymer won the golf tournament by eight strokes.  Erik Compton won the life tournament.

You can say all sorts of good things about Erik Compton.  He has great talent, he works hard, he has persistence and spirit.  He has heart.  But what this sports psychologist was talking about was how Erik’s life of setbacks contributed to the golfer and person he is today.  He had to endure childhood ridicule, and what has to be one of the most difficult physical challenges I can imagine, having your heart taken from your body and replaced with another one – twice.  He confronted failure, and the threat of failure, at every turn.  So on one of golf’s biggest stages, under mind-boggling pressure, he performed with skill and grace because he had faced failure and conquered it.  No mere golf tournament could compare with what he had been through.

This psychologist says his advice to parents is to let our kids face failure honestly.  Don’t try to sugar-coat it, don’t say it doesn’t matter, don’t make excuses.  We can’t keep our kids from failing, no matter how hard we try.  The best we can do is help them recognize it, deal with it, and learn from it.  If we’re having trouble with that, we can sit down with our kids in front of a TV, find a professional golf tournament, and watch Erik Compton.  He knows how to fail, and through failing, win.

Robert Inman's novels -- Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor's Lady -- are available on

In Praise of Being Silly

I’ve always been a huge fan of slapstick comedy – the kind where folks fall all over themselves and everything and everyone around them, spreading zany mayhem and making me laugh so hard I have to contemplate a trip to the emergency room.  There was, in my opinion, no one better at slapstick than Buster Keaton, who pratfalled his way through a series of silent films in the 1920’s, performing his own impossible stunts and beginning a lasting comedic legacy.

Buster Keaton

One of my favorite TV shows in the 1950’s was Candid Camera, the brainchild of a man named Allen Funt.  The idea, in case you don’t go back that far, was to hide a camera somewhere, and film people’s reactions to ridiculous stunts and practical jokes.  When the joke was finally revealed, the victim would be told the show’s catchphrase: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”

My all-time favorite episode starred Buster Keaton.  He’s sitting on a stool at a diner.  Some unsuspecting person takes the stool next to him.  Keaton orders toast and coffee.  He picks up the coffee cup, but only holds onto it by his index finger.  The cup tilts and the coffee pours out onto the plate of toast below.  The guy on the next stool does a huge double-take.  But it gets better.  Keaton puts down the coffee cup, picks up the soggy toast, wrings it out, and puts it back on the plate.  Then he does the coffee spill thing again.  By this time, the guy next door is bug-eyed with astonishment.  The reaction is what the camera is after, but the whole thing works because Keaton does the stunt absolutely deadpan, which was one of his trademarks during his long career.

If laughter is the best medicine, I prescribe sheer silliness, the kind that Buster Keaton and Candid Camera did so well.  And if you want to witness silliness in its purest form, watch a kid being silly.  Up to a certain point in their lives, kids aren’t burdened with the hangups that we adults tote around like peddlers’ sacks.  Their laughter starts deep and bubbles up like a magical fountain of youth and infects everything and everyone around them with uninhibited joy.   On rare occasions, if we’re lucky, we adults stumble upon something that reminds us of what it’s like to laugh just for the pristine sake of laughter.   And I think the best bet we have for doing that is being silly with a kid.

I say all this because I’m about to become a grandfather again.  This time a boy, after two lovely granddaughters.  He will be born into a family with wonderful parents and grandparents who will love and nurture him.  We’ll no doubt shower him with gifts over the years – some tangible, some intangible.  I think one of the best intangibles we can provide is some delicious silliness.

One of the best memories grandson's mother and I have of her own childhood was the day we -- totally without premeditation – draped a sheet of plastic over our heads and ran around the yard.  We weren’t pretending to be anything, we just ran and laughed like maniacs because it made us feel absolutely free and unconnected to anything except the moment.  Someone looking on from the street would have thought we were nuts.  Well, we were, and it was exquisitely good.  We wouldn’t trade that memory for anything.

I’m absolutely sure that grandson's parents will, along with all of the solemn duties and responsibilities of parenthood, take time to be silly with him.  Those will be some of the best moments of his childhood, and theirs.  I know this: his grandfather relishes silliness, and still watches Buster Keaton movies.  I can’t wait.