The Power of Failure II: Learning from mistakes

As a follow up to the last post, I want to share an anecdote from my formative years…

When I was 14 years old I took a pilgrimage to a jumping hole at the base of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Like many jumping holes, this one had ledges of all different heights; There was a 10-foot jump, a 20-foot jump, and something even higher for those willing to navigate the trees and rocks.

Sometimes your brain is lying — taking a leap likely won’t kill you.

After comfortably leaping off the short rock a few times, I climbed up to the larger jump. There I stood above a pool of frozen water, and my heart began to race. I wanted to jump off the cliff, but for some reason my legs wouldn’t move.

Uh oh, why can’t I do this?

I tried again. I counted down from 10. From 5. Aloud. In my head. I counted sheep. I feigned jumping. Nothing worked.

I was paralyzed by fear.

I don’t know how long I stood at the top of that cliff, staring down at the jump, letting it get the best of me. It felt like hours. Or longer.

“You’ll think about this and regret it all year if you don’t do this,” my brother said to me, urging me on. I knew, even in that moment, that he was right. But for some reason I just couldn’t move. The more I thought about “just doing it” the worse the sensation of failure became. Finally, the sun faded away and that was it.


I did think about that all year. Not everyday, but it stayed on my mind. After a while, what I thought about wasn’t the failure, but how to fix it. How could I turn a defeat into a victory? I vowed that if I ever had a shot to jump off that cliff again, that nothing would stop me.

I decided I was getting in my own way. The trick was to not think about jumping or rationalizing safety, but to simply walk off the edge of the rock. I needed to free my mind from it’s self-imposed limitations. My emotions were telling me “danger, stay back” and overriding the objective reality that I would be quite safe on the way down.

The following summer, we drove back to the same spot. I walked over to the ledge and…

Just jumped.

Now there’s no way it would have felt so rewarding on the way down if there hadn’t been a failure to overcome. The failure provided greater satisfaction than if it had been easy in the first place.

Embrace failures. They teach us what we need to improve and they make success sweeter…and that’s no trivial matter. Two critical ingredients in learning from your failures are

  1. Resolve
  2. Thoughtfulness

You have to resolve to improve…then you have to figure out how. You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself simply because you messed it up all.

In this case, I actually thought way too much. I let my brain’s signals of “steep cliff, you will die” control me, instead of me controlling my brain’s signals. The solution was to remove that step…and simply walk over to the cliff and leap.

This was yet another example of my Primitive Brain conflicting with my modern desires. I sounded a survival mode false alarm, when all I had to do the whole time was just walk over to the cliff and jump.


 The Power of Failure II: Learning from mistakes

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