How Diana Nyad teaches us to fail better

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Elizabeth Leis Newman
Elizabeth Leis Newman

As you may know, 64-year-old Diana Nyad became the first person to complete a 110-mile swim between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage Monday. Let's remember that she's not the oldest woman or only woman. She is the only person, period, full stop.

I consider it to be a perfectly normal human reaction if you, like myself, found my eyes welling when she stumbled out of the water and said:

“I have three messages: One is we should never ever give up. Two is, you are never too old to chase your dreams. And three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team."


Her words were slurred and she was sunburned and exhausted, but she will be back swimming next month to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims.

Of the many lessons we can glean from Nyad's achievements is that there is no excuse to let an aging body stop you from exercise, or from promoting reasonable physical activity among long-term care residents. Another is, as Nyad mentioned, teamwork is often needed for even what we may think of as solitary pursuits.

But the most important is what Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon called Nyad's “beautiful failures.” She showed the “profound grace it takes to face disappointment and failure, again and again and again, and to keep going,” Williams wrote.

This was Nyad's fifth attempt, and I remember being hopeful and then sad when she had to stop on attempts in 2011 and 2012, due to jellyfish and storms. Her first attempt was in 1978, and she tabled her dream until she turned 60. You can hear her explain this in an awesome Ted talk here.

As administrators, executives nurses, students or perhaps as someone chasing a non-healthcare related dream, it would be surprising if you did not know how tremendously discouraging it is to fail. It is rarely as straightforward of whether or not you make it 100 miles: We might fail in achieving a quality goal, or we might more subtly fail residents or their family members in a lack of communication. We might fail coworkers in lacks of acts of kindness, or fail ourselves in not putting forth effort we know we are capable of.

At a certain point, you either accept the status quo, or you keep pushing. I'm not the first person to think of this famous Samuel Beckett quote in relationship to Nyad, but it's worth hanging on a bulletin board:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Elizabeth Newman is senior editor at McKnight's.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.