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Falling... and Learning to Walk

I used to think that in order to build confidence I needed to have more experiences of success. Yet when I think about the most confident people I know, it's not so much that everything they touch "turns to gold," but more that they seem to handle failure in a way that for me is just not natural! Sure, successes are great and yes, they do make us more confident, but I believe our failures can be just as confidence-building if we know how to approach them.

I witnessed something amazing when my daughter was learning to walk.

I think... I actually saw the moment she figured it out.

When she was one year old, my aspiring toddler had all the strength, balance, and coordination she needed to walk. Yet she was reluctant to do it. As parents instinctively do, her mother and I tried endlessly to coax her across our living room. We were hoping she would at least try. Despite all of our coaxing, my little girl wasn’t interested. She would very predictably and persistently go straight to her knees and crawl.

But then it happened. She was standing on her own two feet, a little wobbly, and she started to lose her balance. In that moment, here’s what I saw:

Realizing she was going to fall, she suddenly had an idea and knew exactly what she had to do...

  1. She stuck out her hind end

  2. She put her hands forward

  3. She let herself fall softly and gracefully on her diaper-reinforced backside.

It was in this moment that I saw something click for her:

My daughter had just figured out how to fall.

With total confidence, a renewed sense of purpose, and a look of determination, my little girl got back to her feet and started walking. She fell a few more times, but after about ten minutes, she had mastered the ability to make it anywhere she wanted in our living room. She had also mastered the ability to fall gracefully.

I’ll never forget that moment, in large part because I knew I would never want to let myself forget it. My daughter had just taught me one of the most important lessons of my life:

In life, we will never learn to walk if we don’t first figure out how to fall.

So how do we figure out "how to fall?" Here are a couple thoughts...

  1. Know that most things can be learned. We often wrongly assume that we either “have it” or “don’t have it.” If we think this way, every failure becomes a judgement against us. The reality is, our personal skills and abilities usually have more to do with the effort we’ve put into developing them than our “natural ability.”

  2. Know how to soften the landing. Usually the first thought we have when we mess something up is something like, “I knew I couldn’t cut it,” or “what’s wrong with me that I can’t get this?” It's almost always some kind of indictment against who you are at the very core rather than something more positive like, "hey you just need practice- you'll get it next time." Next time you experience this, try noticing those thoughts and exposing them for what they are: false and downright unhelpful. Write them down or tell a friend- you’d probably be surprised at how quickly your friends will tell you they’ve had similar thoughts and feelings.

  3. Take calculated risks. Let’s face it, my daughter was learning how to walk in a “controlled environment.” We weren’t asking her to learn on a ten-foot high tightrope. Neither should you expect to be able to take risks where the challenge is too great and the consequences of “falling” too high. For every learning there is a “zone of proximal development" or appropriate challenge.

  4. Most of all, learn to expect failure and appreciate it. Failure can be as equal a contributor to confidence as success can. Imagine how empowering it might feel to be 100% confident that you can survive failure. Imagine knowing that you can be less than perfect and still get up and try again! In psychology this is called “resilience,” and it is proven to be an essential quality of people who are successful in life.

Was there ever a time when you experienced the freedom to fail? How did that change things for you?

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