In the face of failure, these two words made all the difference.

In the face of failure by Cathy Jacob at CathyJacob.com

If you’d rather listen than read, visit Sound Insight, episode 6.

With not enough saliva left in my mouth to spit, I gingerly stepped onto a narrow, rickety rope bridge.

It was the definition of unstable – two parallel ropes strung about 25 feet above the ground between a pair of giant redwoods. The task was to cross it by stepping on narrow wooden slats placed between the ropes every two feet or so.

If I fell, I wouldn’t fall far. I had on the full safety get up of straps, ropes and pulleys. I knew this. I told myself this.

It didn’t help.

Every limb, every muscle, every centimeter of my body trembled.

This was week one of an intensive 10-month leadership development program in Northern California. At that moment, I wondered what I’d signed up for.

A lesson in failure.

Every step sent the structure into spasms. Within the first few moments, I lost my balance and fell, in slow motion, to my knees. I grabbed the ropes on each side of the bridge and hung on as it swung with the shock of my fall.

Tom, our high ropes instructor, stood on a platform on the other side of the bridge watching.

“Begin Again”, he said in a calm, neutral voice.

At first, I couldn’t get off my knees. I was frozen to that bridge, my fingers gripping the ropes as if I were about to plummet to my death. Tom repeated, “Begin Again.” Somehow, slowly, clumsily, I got up. I took a few more steps and then started to lean precariously to one side. “Find your center”, he commanded. “Begin again”. Somehow, I righted myself.

This process went on for what seemed like an eternity.

Every step tested my balance. I stumbled a few more times but I didn’t fall off. To fall off would mean defeat and I had just had a brutal public failure on the previous death-defying activity. I refused to fail again.

Finally, after several minutes of inching forward, Tom walked out to assist me. In my mind, this was failure of a different kind. (He hadn’t had to do that for anyone else).

Unlike some of my classmates who seemed to come alive on the high ropes course, I struggled. Each new challenge revealed my incompetence, my lack of coordination, my intense fear.

I climbed; I fell. I tried to balance; I fell. I failed, over and over again.

But with each set back, came his insistent, matter-of-fact instruction “Begin Again”.

I was not accustomed to such public failure. I felt humiliated and inept.

How often do we treat failure as the end of the story?

We tell ourselves, I failed. It’s over. I’m incompetent, inept, a loser.

Or, the game is rigged. I failed because… it wasn’t fair, the circumstances were ugly, the rules were unclear.

Tom’s words and, in particular, the way he said them, cut through all of that. It wasn’t about my limitations, my innate gifts or talents. It wasn’t about how tough the course was or how poorly the bridge was designed. In fact, the bridge design was perfect for its intended purpose. It was designed to be tough. In my case, it was designed to have me fail.

Life is designed to be tough, and failure is built into the design.

That was almost 20 years ago. Slamming into my limitations like that was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time in my life. It was pivotal. To that point, my whole life was about learning how to succeed. This was a lesson in how to fail.

It taught me to get over myself. I learned that there are worse things than failure. That the failure itself was less important than what happened next.

Before my high ropes experience, I lived by a “failure is not an option” credo.

I believed that hard work and extreme preparation and control could keep me from failing. I was terrified of failure. It kept me from taking risks. It made me drive myself in ways that were not healthy. I became obsessive. And when I did fail, I would either berate myself or, I’d shrug and say, I guess I’m just not cut out for this, I might as well give up. I was like a bad parent to myself – at times too strict and judgmental and at other times, too permissive and detached.

One of the many gifts of that leadership development experience then and since, is a different relationship with failure.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not like to fail. I have not made peace with it, AT ALL. I still don’t react well in the face of my limitations. But I do now recognize it as an inevitable part of the learning process and essential to continued growth.

Begin Again became a personal mantra for recovery.

Those two words have become a rallying cry of sorts. They call on my fortitude and my resilience. They are words that assume I will try again.

Failure has become less terrifying, less humiliating, and more just part of the process.

Fear is less of a showstopper and more of an uninvited but necessary guest along for the ride.

The words, begin again, mean more to me than an instruction for recovery. They also represent renewal and forgiveness. Each day is an opportunity to renew my commitments to my well-being, my loved ones and the work that calls me. Each morning, as the sun rises, I get to begin again. No harsh judgment, no debate, no woe is me – just a new beginning.

The simple act of starting over without self-recrimination or excuses is an act of courage and persistence. When done gently, with love, it is also an act of self-compassion. When you practice it over and over, you start keeping your promises to yourself and others more often. The successes start accumulating and the rituals that sustain you become habits.

What’s your experience with failure and what have you learned from it?

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Cathy Jacob

I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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