To Jerry Spinelli, success comes from enduring failure

Last Saturday, Norristown-native and award-winning author Jerry Spinelli spoke at Elmwood Park Zoo during their Read Across America festivities. He could have spent the majority of the time discussing his long and successful career that spans almost four decades. Instead, he spent an equal amount of time, perhaps more, examining failure.

“I think life is much more about losing and how we deal with losing than it is about winning,” said Spinelli. “If I were curriculum director of Norristown schools, you couldn’t graduate with out taking courses called ‘Beginning Failure’ and ‘Advanced Failure.’ When you graduate and got out in the real world and bump into the inevitable failure, instead of falling to pieces, you’re okay with it because you have already made friends with failure.”

He started his talk followed by a question-and-answer session in the zoo’s Canopy Gardens by saying he recently started three books but at about 75 pages in, tossed them.

“It’s the way it goes sometimes,” he said.

Some may think a writer like Spinelli spins yarns easily and his next three books are completed. Why is he throwing away stuff? Why is he talking about failure?

unknown-15 unknown-16Before he introduced you to your friend, Maniac Magee he was friends with failure. His first few novels were rejected and he had five published books before Maniac Magee.

Despite the rejections and the lack of overnight success he continued. Not only did he share an office with a pet rat – which Spinelli extolled their wonderful traits – he shared it with an invincible coworker.

He isn’t alone. The most innovative and successful people have chosen to work with, not stop working, despite failure.

If you choose writing as a profession, you two will become very familiar with each other.

It’s not just writing. It’s anything you are passionate about. If you are obsessed with fulfilling your potential you will come across immense hurdles and sometimes fail.

We root for the underdog as evidenced in our regional pride for the Eagles-postseason persona. We just don’t want to be them.

We love Rocky and share the movie quote, “But it isn’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

But we don’t want to get hit too hard.

Little League season is approaching which means parents will be clamoring for their children to be assigned to the “best” coaches and “best” teams.

They will learn more from being on the Bad News Bears. How will they react when teammates run to third instead of first, when the pitcher walks the bases loaded, or when their best friend strikes out for the third time in the game?

Do they go into a shell and stay silent?

“Hey pitcher, let’s get this next one you got this!”

Are they sympathetic or take a few not-too-nice verbal barbs?

There are lessons in losing. Do you want to learn them now or later because I don’t know anyone who goes through life undefeated?

Think about fielding a ground ball.

It goes through your legs.

The coach tells you to get in better position. Put your glove on the ground. Get lower.

The next ground ball hits your glove and ricochets into the outfield.

“Move your body. Square up to the ball.”

This time the ball bounces off your glove and hits you on the chin.

It hurts. You might be bleeding. This is where the thought of quitting creeps in. Do I even want to play this sport?

Another ground ball is coming your way. It hits your glove, but you squeeze it too late and it pops out.

“Better,” the coach encourages. “Hold on to it.”

All technically failed attempts but each showed improvement.

The ball rolls in your direction, you take one step to your right and it nestles into your lowered glove.

“Let’s do a few more,” you say to the coach.

Failure on the baseball diamond or in the workplace depends on your attitude. It can either defeat you or be the motivation to move forward.

The most rewarding, impactful things are never easy and require courage to even attempt.

It is often said to not meet your heroes because you are bound to be disappointed. Growing up in Norristown, I read Spinelli’s books in my hot-pink bedroom and it made my dream of becoming a writer not-so-far fetched. Here was someone on a book cover from my town, writing about places I went to all the time!

In recent years, I’ve had the wonderful experience of meeting Spinelli and speaking with him about writing. He is one of the most humble, genuine, kind people I have had the pleasure of knowing.

On Saturday, he proved again why he is one of my heroes.

Spinelli and I share not only a hometown, but a mutual friend – failure. I might have marveled at the Newberry-Medal on his book when I was a girl but today, I’m more impressed to learn about how hard he continues to work to master his craft.

Local author Jerry Spinelli discusses his craft at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown