I was awakened at 2:30 AM by the ringing of my home telephone not two feet away. It was startling and disorienting. My “land-line” never rang at night. And my wife and I rarely answer it because only telemarketers call us on that phone.

failure promotes discovery bad news

But my wife answered. She determined that the caller wanted to speak to me. After clearing my head for a few seconds and focusing on what the caller was trying to tell me, I finally heard:

“This is Maya. I am calling to tell you that my father, Kan, died earlier this week.”

I quickly apologized for not recognizing her more quickly. She apologized for calling in the middle of the night (it was 4:30 PM in Japan where her call originated).

I thanked her profusely for informing me and expressed my condolences. I told that her father was truly a good friend and special person who would be sorely missed.

Digesting the News

Returning to bed, I was unable to sleep for several hours. I dozed for an hour or two, then got up at 5:30 A.M. and had a cup of coffee.

failure promotes discovery morning coffee

Shake out the cobwebs.

Kan and I met when I was working as a food chemist at Kraft Foods Research and Development in the late 1970s. I had graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and started working at Kraft shortly thereafter. During my orientation, I met another newly hired food scientist, Thomas Stratton, Ph.D.

I didn’t meet Kan until some months later when Tom arranged a meeting of the three of us to discuss rooming together. I was the youngest and least educated of the three of us. Kan was also a Ph.D. chemist.

At our meeting, Kan seemed to be an aloof, highly intelligent scientist. After a short conversation, we agreed to work out an arrangement in which we would rent a house together less than a mile from Kraft R & D in Glenview, Illinois.

Having grown up as the oldest of ten children, I had developed some independence. I had been working since I was 12 years old (sweeping floors in the Catholic grammar school I attended). I saved my money, put myself through college with a little help from my grandfather and was financially responsible for myself throughout.

But I was still living at home. So at 22 years of age, I was ready to move out. Living in a four-bedroom bungalow with my parents, two brothers and seven sisters, all sharing two bathrooms, was a strong incentive to get out.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Time to Move Out

Following that initial meeting, we found a large two-story house and the three of us arranged to rent it, sharing all of the expenses equally.

failure promotes discovery glenview home

A Glenview home.

Needless to say, I came to know Kan very well. At twenty-nine years old, he was a brilliant, intense, traditional Japanese gentleman. He was also inquisitive and at times eccentric.

A Unique Roommate

He taught me to appreciate Japanese cuisine, eat gohan (rice) with hashi (chopsticks), and cook Tonkatsu.

He was intensely committed to learning, and fascinated with computing. Having obtained the 8080 and earliest 8086 microprocessors, he built his own desktop computer, and began programming.

He wanted to be ambidextrous, so he stopped using his right hand and forced himself to do everything with his left hand for several months.

I learned that while in graduate school he wanted to learn piano. So he used his knowledge of music from his early school days and began playing and memorizing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, one measure at a time. Within 10 months, he was able to play it flawlessly.

failure promotes discovery piano player

Self taught piano.

That taught me that anyone can learn a new hobby or vocation.

He was the consummate skeptic, always asking “why?”.

I remember one day I suggested that he wash his car. It literally had several years of dust and dirt that had accumulated since he bought it. We had a frustrating conversation in which I explained that it was best for the longevity of the car that it be kept clean.

But he repeatedly asked “why?” “What was the purpose?” The finish would be unaffected by not washing it. And the time devoted to keeping it clean could be spent doing more important things like programming, cooking or playing the ancient Japanese game Go.

I learned acceptance and detachment from Kan, and to remain curious.

His courage to move to another continent and create a new life, while maintaining connections to his old life in Japan, taught me how to conquer fear.

He taught me the value of experiencing other cultures. Getting to know Kan was like spending a year partially immersed in another culture. I was only 22 years old and soaked it up.

Living Together

Our agreement was that each of us would do all chores and evening meals for a week at a time. So, every third week, Tom and I got to enjoy home cooked Japanese meals. The other weeks we would feast on Tuna Noodle Casserole (one of Tom’s favorites) or meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes (my version of my mother’s cooking).

That same week of cooking, I would spend a little time each day, sweeping, replacing paper towels and toilet paper, stocking the refrigerator, vacuuming and picking up the 2-story house.

I learned about teamwork, responsibility and hard work.

During that time together, we shared wins and losses, good times and bad, like brothers. Together, Tom and Kan helped me by providing perspective when my first serious relationship ended, by listening and sharing stories about their break-ups.

It was an experience of a lifetime that would never be repeated or equaled.

Failure Promotes Discovery

I never would have worked at Kraft, never would have met Kan and Tom, never would have experienced the maturity and wisdom of two older surrogate “brothers,” if not for one massive failure:

Being rejected by all of the medical schools to which I had applied.

My entire high school and college career had been focused on getting into medical school. At the time, it was the thing to do if you had a high grade point average and a bent for science. But it was also my family’s dream for me, and my dream for myself.

I was placed on a waiting list, but ultimately denied admission. So, I needed to get a job, save some money, buy a car and contemplate my next career move.

That's when I saw the ad for a food chemist at Kraft, and applied.

Failure Breeds Character

I cannot fully measure the positive impact of my experiences during the two years between graduating from college and beginning medical school in the fall of 1979. When I entered medical school, I was still an immature, sheltered, lower middle class kid with a lot to learn.

But I was much better prepared as a result of my time with Kan and Tom.

We never know how life will shape and mold us. But it is the rare “failure” that doesn’t teach us an important lesson.

It is best to embrace our failures, learn from them, and overcome or transcend them.

Moving On

Kan left his food science career shortly after I left for medical school. He transitioned to his true love: computer programming. He designed arcade style coin-operated video games in the early 1980s for D. Gottlieb & Co. These were the “old school” video games that replaced pinball machines. He was the proud creator of Mad Planets.

failure promotes discovery mad planets

One of Kan's creations.

He later developed computer programs used by other computer programmers, and sold and supported a suite of software tools for almost 30 years.

Losing Touch

Kan and I did not keep in close touch over the years. We moved away from each other. He married and had three children. I married, attended medical school and residency, divorced and remarried.

I visited him on occasion. He and his wife visited us a few years ago. I spoke with his daughter about her career plans on the phone.

As he became older, he developed some medical problems and moved back to his home in Japan. We followed each other via Facebook.

I was saddened by his passing. But I never got the impression that he feared or dreaded death. He was fascinated by his illness and the beneficial effects of his home oxygen. He spent his last days with his family and friends, playing Go, and posting his oxygen levels as his illness progressed.

I believe he was satisfied with his life.

I know that I was privileged to have been a part of it.

And it was all due to a massive “failure” in mine.