Once upon a time, my wife told me she wanted to move to a farm. I try to be a good husband, so I refused my inclination to reject the idea out of hand. We talked through it and decided it wasn’t the right time to do that, but we could keep it as an option for the future.
A few months later I happened across an article about aquaponics. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it is a closed-loop gardening/fish-raising system. It is extremely efficient in terms of nutrient production and use of water to grow food and protein. The systems are fairly scalable and you can build one in your home for a lot less than you can buy a farm. So I thought I had found the solution. We could have a farm right in our house in the suburbs. We could grow our own food and raise our own fish for protein and my wife would be happy because we lived on a farm. Wins all around!
Well, it turns out that it wasn’t all fresh produce and huge fish by magic. I watched YouTube videos and read blog posts obsessively for months and then finally decided to go for it. I initially budgeted $1000 for the system with a cap of $1500. I hit my budget pretty close and got the system up and running.
That first year, things went ok. I made a mistake in locating my grow beds and they didn’t get enough sun. So not only did they grow poorly, but they got infested with spider mites. The lack of plant growth caused spikes in my water parameters which was hard on my fish, and I didn’t have a good way to cycle the water in my fish tank because it was in my basement away from a water source. I also realized later than I had miscalculated my fish stocking limits and had more than doubled the number of fish I should have been keeping for my tank size. We ended the year with a huge crop of basil and a handful of cucumbers (like 8?) and about four small ziplocks of tilapia filets.
Fast forward to now. I have burned over $3000 dollars total, and this year I am not running my system at all. Last year was a miserable failure where we got a few leaves of kale and eventually had to kill all of our fish as humanely as possible because they were all sick and suffering. Toward the end of last summer, I refused to even go into the laundry room where the fish were because I was so ashamed that I had failed at this endeavor for four years running and wasted so much money for so little value.
It took me a little while to realize that avoiding the laundry room because it represented my failure was a bit of a ridiculous way to go through my life. But the process of coming to grips with my failure taught me several critical things. I wish that it hadn’t cost me $3000 and hundreds of hours of my time to learn it, but lots of people spend a lot more time and money on other things and never learn these critical lessons. So maybe I am still a little ahead of the curve.
The first thing I learned is that failure is ok. Sure I have heard iterations of that many times through my life. But here’s the thing… I don’t fail much. I like to think that is because I am awesome and am just good at everything I set my mind to. And there may be a tiny bit of truth to that. But the bigger picture is that I don’t fail at much because I don’t take risks. I carefully calculate every big decision and don’t jump unless I’m absolutely certain I can land on my feet.
This endeavor into aquaponics was an object lesson for me. I took a risk and failed. And it was ok. My life didn’t fall apart. The worst things that happened were that I unwittingly tortured some fish and wasted some of my time and resources (and my wife had to pick up the slack on the laundry since I was too ashamed to go in there). Right now I am making an attempt at being a writer. I am guaranteed to fail many times along that path. I am not sure I would have been ready to take the writer-risk if I hadn’t failed at aquaponics and had to work through that.
The second thing I learned is that I can do things that I didn’t think I could do. In order to craft my aquaponics system, I had to level up my crafting skills. I had to buy tools I had never used before. I had to design piping layouts and size pumps. I had to learn to glue PVC pipe and mount things to concrete. I had to learn about siphons and pH balance in fish tanks. If I were to list out everything I had to learn and build to make this system function, it would be a small book.
This process gave me the confidence that I could learn to do a lot more things than I realized. I had always believed that I would be incapable of major home-maintenance projects. But the year after creating my system, I decided that I probably had the skills required to replace my own windows. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos and decided to go for it. I strapped a new window to the top of my Toyota Carolla (while the Home Depot guy judged me silently) and replaced my own window. Succeeding at that project gave me the confidence to replace our sliding glass door a few months later (our old door had to be slammed with one’s entire body weight to get it to move).
The last thing I learned is that when my wife says she wants something big, we should talk about underlying motivations before I just going for it. After the aquaponics failure, we discussed it at length and came to a fresh conclusion. My wife did not want to move to a farm. What she really wanted was for our family to be healthy and eat healthy food that we knew where it came from. Now aquaponics is one possible solution to that. But if we had figured out the true motivation earlier, we could have had other options as well.
This skill came in very handy when she told me recently she wanted to move to a tiny home. After much discussion, it turned out that she was really feeling burdened by how much stuff we have. Yay for not moving into a tiny home only to discover that wasn’t really the problem! If you are judging my wife for not knowing what she wants, you may be missing the point. I don’t think any of us know our true motivations. It takes intentional thought and extensive conversation to tease out our deep desires. I think all of us just need to dig a little deeper sometimes to figure out what is really motivating a surface desire.
So now I have a run-down fish tank collecting dust in my basement and four large tubs filled with ridiculously expensive clay pellets that are currently growing a few weeds (and not the lucrative kind). For a little while, I felt like I wasted my time and money on a failure. But now I think I invested in learning some valuable lessons. I gained some experience at failure, gained confidence in my ability, and learned how to determine underlying motivations. I don’t know how much money got spent on my college education, but even that couldn’t teach me these lessons. And I learned them all for the low price of $3,000. If I had to pay the money again to get that same value, I’m pretty sure I would do it.
What are you afraid to try because you are afraid to fail? If you do fail, what is the worst that can happen? Is there something you are convinced you will never be good at? If it is something you want to do, is there a step you could take toward learning it? Go take a risk. Even if you fail, try to learn something in the process. As long as you learn something, it can never be a complete waste.