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On Falling

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli
On Falling

There was a great blog in the Harvard Business Review last May by Peter Bregman on procrastination. In it, he talks about watching surfers in Malibu:

What really struck me though, was what they had in common. No matter how good, how experienced, how graceful they were on the wave, every surfer ended their ride in precisely the same way: By falling.

Some had fun with their fall, while others tried desperately to avoid it. And not all falls were failures — some fell into the water only when their wave fizzled and their ride ended.

But here’s what I found most interesting: The only difference between a failure and a fizzle was the element of surprise. In all cases, the surfer ends up in the water. There’s no other possible way to wrap up a ride.

That got me thinking: What if we all lived life like a surfer on a wave?

The answer that kept coming to me was that we would take more risks.

That difficult conversation with your boss (or employee, or colleague, or partner, or spouse) that you’ve been avoiding? You’d initiate it.

That proposal (or article, or book, or email) you’ve been putting off? You’d start it.

That new business (or product, or sales strategy, or investment) you’ve been overanalyzing? You’d follow through.

And when you fell — because if you take risks, you will fall — you’d get back on the board and paddle back into the surf. That’s what every single one of the surfers did.

So why don’t we live life that way? Why don’t we accept falling — even if it’s a failure — as part of the ride?

(You can read the full article here.)   

I find his observations to be so powerful, even months after I first read the article.   Why ARE we so scared of falling? It reminds me of another quote by Brian Andreas: “Leaning out as far as she can, hoping she'll fall soon, so she can stop worrying about whether it will happen or not.”

I think that is what it comes down to (for me anyway); it’s not the actual fall.  It’s the fear around what the fall will be like. How much it will hurt. How bad it will be.  Who it will hurt. How embarrassing it will be. How foolish I’ll feel. How hard it will be, after all that, to get back up, to try again. The thoughts of falling, of failure, can be vicious and relentless. It makes me kind of shudder just thinking about it.

My daughter Marlowe has been learning how to cartwheel lately, and over the winter break she really clicked with the technique, and started having great success.  She would still fall about half the time she tried, sometimes in spectacular fashion, but she was so elated that she could do a cartwheel, she didn’t care that she sometimes didn’t.

However, after a few too many fails in a row, she started to get scared, and doubt herself. She began to hesitate too long, pretty much guaranteeing a fall. Finally she said to me, “I’m just too scared.” In a moment of inspiration I told her to take the “fear Marlowe”—the one that creeps into her head and makes her nervous and tells her she can’t do it—and boot her into outer space, to just kick her out of her mind. Well. She took that advice and ran with it, doing an elaborate pre-cartwheel ritual of dramatically pulling the “fear Marlowe” out of her head and doing a series of spits and hand gestures and drop kicks before beginning. It was fantastic. And. It worked. When she stopped being scared of falling she started soaring.

And of course she also kept sometimes falling… but it just stopped mattering.  It truly was the fear that had gotten in her way; the falls themselves were sometimes funny and sometimes light and sometimes goofy and sometimes they hurt a little bit-- but as long as she wasn't afraid of them, they didn't stop her.

No matter what age we are, it’s really hard to have the courage to fall, but as both a parent and an educator I need to remember to embrace it, to kick the "fear Erika" out of my head every time she creeps in there.   I need to remember what the surfers know-- that the falling can actually be the fun part.

How can you embrace the fall?  


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.