Lessons in Rock Climbing
I want you to think about failure for a moment, and how you have related to it throughout your life. Has it been that failure typically meant you were less than? Has it ever made you feel shame? Has it been that failure, or fear of it rather, has caused you discomfort and distress?
It’s not uncommon for that to be the case for many of us, and it’s completely understandable why. We are hard-wired for connection and when we fail, we often take that to mean that we aren’t worthy or deserving of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, when self-worth depends on each success, it can become fragile and we stop taking chances or risks because a fumble might cause us to break. But, what if we looked at it from another perspective?
Perhaps failure can be seen through the lens of a rock climbing metaphor. Let’s imagine that any new thing you try, any challenge you attempt, or any life change you want to make is a bit like one of those colourful rock climbing walls you might see at a posh sporting centre.
There are routes of graded difficulties marked by various rock colours that you can challenge, or you can just go at it freestyle if you want. Some rocks are larger and more convex than others, so they’re easier to grapple. Others are small and concave, and spaced further apart.
Everyone who tries rock climbing is bound to fall off sooner or later. Your foot might slip or you may simply lose the strength to go on. You might also get stuck at some points and be unable to continue the path you started out on. Falling, and failing, is expected - and a huge part of actually figuring out how to climb.
When we misstep or lose our grip, it doesn’t mean that we’re not cut out for climbing or that we’re too weak. It just means that maybe we need to plan a little better and try out another path. Falling off is a learning experience. You learn which grips are slippery and which rocks are easier to get your foot a hold in. You also gain strength and flexibility so that with practice, you can start to reach for rocks that you couldn’t before. Rock climbing is about working out which path works best for you with your current capabilities and capacities, and understanding that the next time you have a go, it will be with the experience and knowledge of what you've tried so far.
I wonder if we could look at failure the same way? What if instead of allowing ourselves to feel shame or blame for having tried and failed, we look at the situation a bit like that wall of rocks and ask ourselves:
What did I learn from this attempt?
What could I do differently next time?
Do I need to change my approach?
Do I have the proper tools for this job? (proper rock-climbing shoes and chalk help!)
Do I just need some more practice?
Do I need more support?
It’s helpful to remember that there are people and things to protect climbers when they do fall. A diligent belay-buddy can help manage the rope and prevent you from tumbling too far. They also often have a wider view and can shout up helpful directions or words or encouragement. A foam mat will prevent you from breaking any bones. Who or what might those things be for you in the challenges you face everyday?
Life isn’t always going to be an easy or straightforward path, but changing your perspective on failure can be one way to build up the resilience and confidence to use the learnings you’ve acquired and try again.