On the hunt for excellence

2018 Captain of School, Eddie Proper, explains why failure can be a necessary part of success.

My grandfather recently turned 89, so it came at a bit of a surprise over summer when I heard the doorbell ring, and found him standing on the doorstep with a large black case in hand. ‘I heard you wanted one of these,’ he said, as I opened the case to see a hideous looking, incredibly complicated brass instrument. 

It turned out to be my grandfather’s old valve trombone, from his previous life as a talented jazz musician. Never in my life have I ever expressed any desire to play the valve trombone to anyone. But there I was, staring in bemusement at this illogical instrument, with my expectant grandfather waiting in anticipation for me to make a sound.

Alas, although the musical pedigree was there, it was soon apparent that it had not carried forth unto me. And so, I found myself facing the challenge of trying to do something at which I was terrible. Should I stumble on, heedless of the awful gurgle of noise I was making, or politely give up, to avoid embarrassment? Most of us in this situation will choose the latter, such that curiosity inevitably yields to pride. 

This awkward dilemma rears its head in many avenues of life including at Melbourne Grammar, where the continual hunt for ‘excellence’ seems to many boys quite a daunting activity, and one to be baulked at. Throughout my six years at Melbourne Grammar School, however, the School has shown me that although it may seem difficult at first, the way to achieve excellence is simply to try – and to fail. 

There are typically two outcomes that occur upon trying new things. The first is that you try and you succeed. If this is the case, you are the colloquially termed ‘natural’. You have just increased your repertoire of skills further, added another string to your proverbial bow, and found one more area where you may be able to succeed later in life. 

However, this is very unlikely to happen – for good reason. No one, not even the most talented individual, can possibly be good at everything. Even the great Sir Donald Bradman went out for a duck. Seven times, in fact! 

So the more likely situation is, you try and you fail. Whether this be miserably, embarrassingly or tragically, doesn’t matter. This is the reality that the majority go through when attempting something unknown. However, Melbourne Grammar has taught me not to fear this failure, but rather to embrace it. 

A talented person makes whatever they specialise in look easy. Attempting what they do makes the rest of us understand the effort and training required to achieve this. Failure has therefore given me a window through which to admire the efforts of others.

Failure presents us with an opportunity to learn and to grow and, by being prepared to fail, we are able to shape our own growth. The only failure is failing to try. Refusing to try new uncomfortable things means we ultimately cannot grow as a person. I may not have carried on the family pedigree of creating talented jazz music (the trombone remains in its case), and many students at this School may not follow in the proverbial ‘family footsteps’. 

However, excellence can only be achieved through continually reaching further and further out over the precipice of the unknown. And the further you reach, the more likely you are to find something truly excellent. 

Eddie Proper 2018 Captain of School

This exploration was previously published in Grammar News No. 125, April 2018.