Learning to Fall… Again… and Again… and Again

Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.

  –From “Batman Begins” (2005)

Ever try one of these? This picture isn’t of me, but it may as well have been. I spent about an hour on a warm August afternoon last summer trying to master the paddleboard.

And I failed miserably.

I didn’t even do “okay” by most standards. Frankly, I purely sucked at it. I’m pretty sure I drank a gallon of lake water thanks to the countless fluvial cascades that entered through my nose upon each crash and burn.  If you’ve never experienced that feeling, trust me…it’s not pleasant.

What’s worse is that I had a small audience sitting up on shore, all lined up in a half-moon configuration watching with more than a passing interest. That made for perfectly unfettered viewing and unending group amusement as I repeatedly fell ass-over-tea-kettle into the lake which abuts the Books family cabin.

My technique involved largely watching others do it first in order to get a sense of what was required. Observing and demonstration is one of the principal ways to train a person to complete a task. Then it’s time to get on board and give it a shot.

The popular methodology? Approach the board, steady it, kneel, grasp the paddle, and stand slowly. Once in a vertical and balanced position, propel yourself slowly on either the right or left side to control your direction. After that, just enjoy the scenery and the ride.

One by one, family members took to the water to give it a whirl. My nephew had no trouble and made it look easy. By all accounts, it’s pure mastery in motion.

Up next is my son, who’s equally as good, but he flaunts his prowess by ending his ride showing off and doing momentary handstands in the center of the board. He’s only got one way off directly into the drink when he can’t maintain his inverted posture, but his balance and core strength are still impressive by most standards.

My older brother? One dunk due to our wild catcalling, noise-making and heckling, all intended to distract him. In defiance and with an extension of his middle finger directed at the crowd, he demonstrates that focus is everything by ignoring us and performs a perfect lap around the lake.

Even my daughter gets into the act and tames the board in short order. Clearly, being petite plays well in controlling the center of gravity.

After an hour of watching and deciding that it can’t be all that hard, I take my turn. “I’ve got this,” I vainly thought to myself. “If they can all do it, then I absolutely can.”  What I didn’t take into consideration was my size compared to others in the group. I’m not exactly a small guy, and weight distribution was about to play a key factor in the end result.

My first attempt doesn’t even come close to a stand-up. Just kneeling on the board gets me my first lake baptismal. Undaunted, I get back on.

The second try goes a smidge better but ends with duplicate results. The act of finding balance proves to be a challenge.

Maybe this isn’t as easy as it appears to be.

As I climb back onto the board, my stubborn side begins to rear its ugly head. “No way I’m letting this flat hunk of fiberglass get the best of me,” I proclaim out loud to no one in particular.  “Get back on, fat boy.”  To no avail, I get the same result. Three, four, six, nine times on the board. Each one concludes with me flying off the damn thing and landing in the water in various extended positions…the face plant, the treadmill front-fly, the backward slip, and the left or right side uncontrolled horizontal dismount.

By this time, the crowd onshore has graciously stopped laughing out of pure pity. What was once a comedy routine in their eyes has turned to spectator empathy with some gratuitous cheering on the side. At least they recognize the effort.

I admit I had a little success after all was said and done, that is if standing and paddling for a maximum of one minute before crashing and burning can be classified that way. What surprised me was how hard balancing was, especially since I consider myself to be a moderately skilled downhill skier.

As expected, I took some good-natured ribbing from family members as I climbed back up on shore.  Someone said great job showing us all how to fall,” and another relative informed me that I would be wise to keep my day job. Clearly that’s the product of public sport, in that you live and die with the results.

It was an unrelated family friend who had the wisest words for me, spoken with a moderate grain of seriousness:

Hell of an effort, Andy.   That speaks more to character than achievement of the result. Learning to fail is as important as making the grade.

I admit those words did little to soothe my bruised ego. Although exhausted from falling off and climbing back on the board repeatedly, I was disappointed at how I failed to accomplish my goal. Frankly, I was a bit peeved at my personal lack of follow-through. Then again, what he said to me was inherently true. Learning how to fail is as equally important as how we manage to reach success in whatever goal we set for ourselves. History is replete with countless examples of many who have come up short but created something much greater in its place. You’ve heard the stories…Edison, Lincoln, Ford Disney, Gates, Jobs, Rowling. The list is endless.

Before you think that I’m comparing falling off of a 12′ by 3′ piece of overpriced polished fiberglass board to some of the greatest minds of the last 200 years, I’m not. Their accomplishments had incredible impacts on modern society, whereas I’m just a dude who can’t figure out how to maintain his balance in water sport.

But the drive to conquer adversity in its simplest form is enduring. Tell me I can’t do something, and I’ll fight like hell to figure out a way that I can. I’m that stubborn, and I hate being told no. Sure, that means I’ll get some bumps and bruises along the way, but the best way to learn is through trial and error.

That means I’ll be up at the lake again this summer trying my hand at paddle boarding again, learning how to fall with grace and style.

And again…and again…and again.

Yeah… investment in nose plugs this year might be in order.


Andy Books
Andy Books
I have spent most of my life in a leadership capacity. That all began right from the time I was the lead in my elementary school play to my current position as a Sales Manager. My truest love and best work comes from teaching and training aspiring leaders how to be skilled and effective leaders, which is a large part of my current occupation. Thirty-five years of collective experience as a Corporate Trainer, College Instructor, Operations Manager, Classroom Facilitator, and Foodservice Manager have played major parts in forming my philosophies that surround company success through employee engagement. Teaching someone to effectively lead gives me the greatest joy, and I write a lot about it. My most important titles though? Father. Dad. Husband. They give me the best material to write and blog about, and you can find them on Linkedin and The Goodmen Project.

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  1. If I had a dollar for every bush, tree, rock, or part of the boat I’ve hooked with a fly. . . . But I keep at it with my version of your paddle board because I’ve seen casting demonstrated with such artistry that it almost takes my breath away. I WILL cast like that someday – sans nose plugs.

    Great message, Andy. Now, back away from your computer and get back up on that board!

  2. I so loved this piece, Andy! This is my third BizCat piece this morning (playing catch-up after being gone all week) and the thread of humanity that has run through them is incredible. In your sharing of this story, I could remember every time I’ve fallen and had to pick myself back up. In your humility, I found my own. This is where strength comes from, friend. I haven’t tried paddle boarding yet. It’s on my list for next summer. I’ve never been the athlete in the family, so goodness knows how it will turn out, but now I’m inspired.

  3. Andy, I can’t believe you included a quote from a Batman movie in your article. I LOVE BATMAn! When I was a kid I used to dress up like him including the tight shorts. You either overcome adversity or it overcomes you. Success is never guaranteed but you must try. As far as failing goes you can’t learn how to fail but some condition their minds to accept failure. Sometimes the acceptance of failure is a success as yourself of guilt. At some point or another we will stumble, fall. and struggle to get up. How we handle setbacks or major hiccups in life sets a tone.

  4. Thank you for this reminder of the importance of falling, Andy. Last night I watched, Creed (of the “Rocky” series with Sylvester Stallone). I note that the main character did not win the final fight, but he stayed in the boxing match all 12 rounds-kept standing back up. With face bloodied, he walked out of the ring with the crowd chanting “Creed! Creed! Creed!” He had earned the crowds respect in staying courageous in the fight. He proved to himself that he wasn’t a “mistake.” and could embrace both his names-Johnson and Creed-and I believe his own sense of dignity. Sometimes the “falling” isn’t about mastery or even “winning,” it’s about demonstrating that we are willing to stretch ourselves beyond what other’s might believe about us or what we believe about ourselves…how we can be persistent, determined, even passionate. Your friend was correct-contents of character on display.

    Your essay also reminds me of the sage wisdom of Pema Chodron, the Buddhist monk, who has authored several books and encourages falling and failing over and over again as a practice in letting go of fears of falling or failing and welcoming the joy of being alive in the falling and the rising.

    Had you never got on the fiberglass you would have never known all those sensations you experienced for yourself, the perseverance you have, the willingness to be that vulnerable in front of people you love and who love you. You had an experience of “alive” out on the water, with the water, the board, your body that those too fearful to even attempt won’t ever have. I think that’s exceptional. I’ll be eager to hear how this next summer goes with that fiberglass board!

  5. This was a very enjoyable article Andy! The message is loud and clear! Never give up.. we will fall, that’s a guarantee!
    I love this lesson right here…
    “Learning to fail is as important as making the grade.”
    Wise friend here Andy!
    I am a bit self competitive and refuse to be told I can’t… being this way the lesson on failing was a big one! But the lesson on never giving up was also gained too!
    Thank you for this beautiful story Andy! Have a great week my friend!