I was standing on the edge of a mountain peak, 3,000 feet from the valley below. I had trained for over two years to be in a position to make this paragliding flight. I was finally ready. With a few quick strides, my paraglider inflated and I was flying. It was majestic and peaceful. Just me, the cool wind in my face and some beautiful panoramic vistas of snowcapped mountain peaks. If you want to stay in the air, you need to catch a thermal (if you’ve ever noticed a bird floating upwards in circles without flapping its wings, you get the gist of it). So catch one I did. I was ascending in a nice and calm manner at first. Then I started climbing faster. And faster. The winds were getting rough and starting to shake me around. I was quickly losing control of my paraglider.
I tried to straighten up my wing so I could fly out of the thermal and back into smooth air. I was able to exit the thermal but the change in wind velocity caused the right section of my wing to collapse. I started spinning out of control toward the earth. The margin of error is very small up there so you have to react quickly. I tried a technique to reinflate the wing which I had learned during my training (but let me point out that discussing a self-rescue technique in the safety of a classroom on solid ground is a little different from trying to figure it out on the fly thousands of feet in the air) but to no avail. I was accelerating toward the ground and could see the trees directly beneath me rapidly coming into focus. I grabbed the handle attached to my emergency parachute. It’s a last-ditch effort if all else fails but there’s guarantee it will work. With not more than a couple seconds to spare, I made one final desperate attempt to maneuver the wing back into place. And it worked. I was flying again. Upon landing I was greeted with hugs and high fives by the rest of the group on the ground who had witnessed the entire ordeal. That was the first and only time I’ve ever gotten down on all fours and kissed the ground. It felt good to be alive.
People started gathering their gliders and piling into jeeps to drive up to the peak for a second flight. The trip leader pulled me aside: “Glenn, I’m guessing after your brush with death, you’re done for the weekend. You’re welcome to go home. We’d all understand.” And without batting an eye, I replied: “No way. Get me back up that mountain now. I gotta get back on the horse.” So with that, I folded up my wing, jumped into the lead jeep and headed up. I was the first one off the peak on this second round and had a nice flight without incident. It was important that I return to the air as quickly as possible. For I knew if I didn’t, I would have time to let the gravity of that last disastrous flight sink in. And I might never have the nerve to fly again.
We’ve all experienced failure. We’ve experienced it at school, at work, in our communities and in our personal lives. We’ve failed trying to get a big promotion. We’ve failed trying to get into the school of our dreams. We’ve failed trying to parent our kids properly. We’ve failed trying to land a very important customer. We’ve failed trying to raise capital for our company. We’ve failed trying to keep our business afloat even after we’ve raised capital. But have we really failed?
Failure (noun): Lack of success.
Interesting. So I guess how we define success will determine how we think of failure. It’s all a matter of perspective. If your goal is to run a marathon under 4 hours but you run it in 5, did you fail for not having met your time target or did you succeed for having completed a 26.2 mile run? If you’re in a three year relationship that ends before you have a chance to say your wedding vows, do you write off the entire relationship as a failure or do you look back at the years of fun and adventure and love and fond memories and feel successful? If the company you founded eventually dies, are you a failure for not having sold the business or are you a success for having quit your job, come up with a business plan, raised capital, launched a product, built an organization, and gotten nice traction in the market?
Even if you’re not able to reframe the experience in a positive light, so what? So what if you failed? Who cares? Failure is good. Failure means you’re trying. Failure means you’re pushing yourself. Failure means you’re facing your fears. Failure means you’re truly experiencing life to the fullest. Failure means you’re human. They say you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Having experienced my share of both, I can certainly attest to that.
As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Through failure we gain strength. We gain knowledge. We gain wisdom. We gain insight. We gain perspective. If you call it quits, you’re throwing all of those valuable lessons learned down the drain. The sooner you try again, the better equipped you are to apply what you’ve learned and perhaps have a different outcome on your next attempt. You’ve learned how to better train for your next marathon. You’ve learned about what’s most important to you in a future spouse. You’ve learned how to stretch the capital in your business further so you have more of a safety net.
The key is to get back on the horse as quickly as possible. Time is not your friend. You want to learn from the experience but you don’t want to dwell on the past. This isn’t the time for “shoulda woulda coulda”. What’s done is done. That chapter in your life is closed. Get over it and move on. Don’t let the experience define you. Rather, you define it.
The question isn’t whether you’ll fail again. You will. It’s inevitable. The question is what will you do the next time you fail? Will you curse for having tried? Will you crawl up in a corner and get depressed? Will you look at yourself in the mirror and feel shame or pity? Will you swear to never try it again? Or will you get back on the horse and give it another shot? You only live once. Make it count.