Experiment: Growth is Messy & Falling is Learning

If I could gift my younger self with one powerful insight it would be this: Growth is messy. I wasted so many hours, even years, believing growth was linear. I believed in some mythical straight line I needed to follow from Point A to Point B. A path on which I should never fall down or, worse yet, fall off.  I thought I had to learn the right things the right way, and I had to do it all right the first time. In short, I thought I had to be perfect. (Ugh.)

In reality, growth comes when we Experiment. When we experiment, we push outside our comfort zone, take risks, try new things, screw up (Yes we do!), fall down, get back up, and try again and again and again. Falling is learning. That is how we learn, and that is how we really grow.

Falling Is Learning

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I began to understand the importance of falling. I’d accepted an invitation to go skiing with a friend and his family in Michigan’s scenic Upper Peninsula. It was my first time on skis. After a brief lesson with an instructor, and a handful of five-year-old classmates, I successfully conquered the bunny hill, and I was ready to brave my first real ski slope.

I cautiously shuffled my way toward the chair lift. The butterflies in my stomach fluttered with excitement while the rest of me focused on not falling while just standing in line. Finally, it was my turn to brave the lift. I felt the chair whisk my butt into the air as the ground dropped from beneath my feet (taking part of my stomach along with it). The flapping of the stomach butterflies made me want to fidget with anticipation, but my fear of heights paralyzed even the tiniest movement until my skis hit solid ground. I glided off the chairlift and headed toward the slope.

I stopped just short of the peak. I surveyed the sapphire blue sky and the shimmering diamonds across the pristine powder. The view was clear as far as the eye could see. The only thing that wasn’t clear, as I peered over the hill, was whether I really wanted to ski down the slope. I hesitated, feeling that paralysis creep back into my limbs and tighten around my stomach. But there was really only one good way to get off the mountain, other than walking or being transported via ski toboggan. Given my options, skiing seemed the least humiliating. There was nowhere to go but down!

I slid toward the crest of the hill and pushed myself just far enough for gravity to reach out and pull me the rest of the way. My very brief training, as well as some fundamental survival instincts, began to kick in. First, I “snow ploughed,” forming a wedge with my skis. Then, I shifted weight ever so slightly to my back leg to help me turn.  At times, I even allowed myself to gain a little speed, but I was careful to never completely lose control.  My former classmates rocketed past me as I lumbered down the slope. Eventually, however, I made it to the bottom, and I did it without ever falling. Yay!

I was so excited, and really quite impressed with myself, when I encountered my friend’s dad at the bottom of the hill. “I made it all the way down, and I didn’t fall even once!” I gushed with a smile so broad it threatened to swallow my face.

He arched his eyebrows, nodded knowingly, and politely pulled up the corners of his mouth. “Just remember. If you’re not falling, you’re not learning,” and with that he skied away.

Take the First Steps to Growth

I have never forgotten that small but critical piece of wisdom from the slope: “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” It took me several years to realize how important that wisdom was for the rest of life, and not just the ski slope. Falling is learning. If you’re looking to grow, but are still a little unsure of how to start, here are a few steps to help you start experimenting and falling:

  • Check (& Recheck) Your Mindset. The biggest difference between “doing” and “experimenting” is a growth mindset. Are you expecting a perfectly straight path between Point A and Point B, or are you ready to experiment, fall, get back up, shift, pivot, and learn as you grow?
    Even with the best growth mindset, you’ll probably get frustrated, even discouraged, and periodically you’ll need to recheck and realign your mindset to keep experimenting.  When we start to push outside our comfort zone it’s natural for that little voice in our head to whisper, “What if I make a mistake?” That’s when our growth mindset can confidently respond, “Don’t worry…I will.” 
  • Where to Grow Next: Prioritize & Take Action. When you look at your vision, and the goals you want to achieve, where do you want to grow next to move you forward? Reflect on the following–
    • Identify Priorities:“Of all the actions I could take, which ones would have the biggest impact on moving me toward my goals?” or simply, “What are my priorities?”
    • Challenge Avoidance: “Which of my top priorities am I not already doing/working on?” or “What am I avoiding that would help move me forward?”

These questions put a spotlight not only on your priority action items, but where you might be hesitating to step outside your comfort zone and, therefore, holding yourself back.

  • Find that First Step. If every journey begins with a single step, then find that step. Ask, “What’s one thing I can do today that will move me in the direction I want to go?”If you’re ready to dive into growth and hurl yourself down the mountain, great! Go for it!  Alternatively, if you feel hesitant to take this first foray outside your comfort zone, then take it one step at a time. Identify a number of actions you could take, and start with the one that is the least intimidating.  You may also find a step that in itself is not scary, but will put you in situations that will require you to take bigger steps.For example, I had a client who was intimidated at the idea of speaking with the senior leadership team, but he was not hesitant to schedule meetings with them 1:1. Once the meetings were scheduled, his strengths of integrity and follow-through ensured he would not back out.Scheduling a meeting was small step for the client, pushing himself just over the peak, and then letting gravity help pull him along. Take that first step that will leverage your strengths and push (or pull) you forward.

Plan Your Bounce

We have to be prepared to fall if we want to learn, but falling only leads to learning when we choose to get back up. There will be days when we want to give in, or even give up. There will be days when we hear that little voice in our head say, “I just can’t do this anymore.” It’s okay to feel defeated. What’s not okay is to accept defeat.

When we get knocked down, we need to already have a plan to bounce back. Make a plan now for what you’ll do when you inevitably fall. Find what works for you, and be ready to take action. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Draw Strength from Your “Why.” Go back to your vision and reground in your purpose. Refocus on what you want to achieve and why it’s important to you.
  • Focus on Your Wins. It’s all too easy to focus on the gaps and all that we haven’t achieved. Take time to celebrate what you have accomplished and the progress you’ve already made to continue to motivate you forward.
  • Re-Energize. There are a number of ways to re-energize:
    • Plug Into Your Energy Source. Are you an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert (somewhere in between)? What feeds your energy? Is it spending time with people, taking time alone to gather your thoughts, or something else entirely? Know what energizes you and plug into your energy source to recharge when your motivation is running low.
    • Get Inspired. Who or what inspires you? What encourages you to keep going? What helps you shift your perspective and see new opportunities? Keep reminders of these people, groups, things, or ideas close at hand for when you need them the most.
    • Get Moving. Get your body moving. We all need time to rest, but movement can help us recharge our brain, whether that’s running, swimming, or even just taking a brisk walk. It’s like when our car battery dies. If we can get the car moving, even a little, we can often generate enough energy to restart the engine. The same can be true for our mind-body connection. So, get your body moving, and restart your engine!
  • Reach Out for Support. Who are your “go-to” people when you need support? Let them know you’ll be calling, and let them how they can help you before you even need them. –Help them help you.If at all possible, avoid “the cave.” Don’t pull too far in before you reach out. When I’m really in a funk, sometimes I pull so far into myself it feels like I might never find my way out. When it comes to helping others, I’m great! I’m a world class “head spelunker,” helping others navigate the caverns of their mind, but I can’t always navigate out of my own cave alone.When it comes to feeling stuck, it helps to have a partner or a guide, someone we trust to really listen, be objective, and help us talk things through. You can turn to a trusted friend, a mentor, a coach, etc.; and you may have more than one go-to person depending on the issue you’re facing. Who is on your own personal “Board of Directors,” or who are key members of your “Community,” “Council,” or “Tribe”? Use the term that resonates with you. The point is to engage your people. Ask for help.

Experiment and Make Our Own Path

Bottom line: Falling is learning. Authentic growth is messy. The clean, linear path from Point A to Point B is a myth. We Experiment. Sometimes we succeed, and other times we fall, we learn, and we keep going. That’s how we make our own path. That’s life, and that is how we grow.