Failure Can Save Your Life

In early September, I got back into a rowing shell for the first time in seventeen years. Only this time, instead of 7 other women and a coxswain, it was me alone with two oars instead of one. I had a perception that the transition from sweeps to sculling would be relatively easy. I had spent thousands of hours rowing in college and business school. And I knew the Charles River decently well due to a summer training in Boston.

It became very clear in my first lesson that I was wrong.

First, a single is incredibly tippy. After simple mistakes or encountering unexpected obstacles in the water, I capsized the boat three times in my first four lessons. I learned to wrap my car key in plastic so the car would start for the drive home. Second, I did not know the Charles the way a sculler needs to know the Charles. There are complex turns, often combined with bridges. There is a complicated “honor system” about which arch to use when going upstream and downstream. Motor boats create wakes that can tip a scull. You have to steer around buoys, kayakers, and collegiate eights racing side by side. It’s the Fifth Avenue of rivers, but with no signage and you are facing backwards.

To row independently, a sculler needs to pass a Captains Test. It is a combination written and rowing test where you have to prove key navigation and safety skills. I set my sights on passing it this Fall. On October 31, I passed the written test. On November 1, I took the in-boat portion.

The air was in the high 30s and snow covered the dock. After successfully navigating every bridge and turn, doing an acceptable job on all drills, one task remained: rowing on the square. This task simulates rowing in freak storm conditions. You can capsize the boat on any other part and still pass the test. Tipping here was automatic failure. I had no issues with this drill in my lessons, so I felt confident I was about to pass. Then, half-way through, I flipped the boat.

At first I was furious and devastated. Then I realized how freaking cold I was, how deep the river was, and how far away we were from the boathouse. My anger turned to fear as I struggled to flip the shell and get back in. The coach steadied the boat and helped bail out the water, a luxury I would not have had on my own.

On the long row back, I realized flipping right then, so unexpectedly, was probably divine intervention. I was close, but I just wasn’t ready yet to be out on my own. Failing signalled that I needed more practice, more safely done with others.

That same week, my son failed a French test. It was a signal to us all—his teacher, his advisor, him, and us—that he needs more help. A friend’s daughter failed her driving test. It was a signal she needed more practice behind the wheel, which could save her life and others.

These situations reinforce how important failure is as a signaling mechanism. Yet we often “help” our kids and our teams avoid failure so much that it cuts off those critical signals. We fear failure, so we avoid putting an idea out in the world or trying something new. We blame others for our failures, rather than saying “what can we learn from this.”

I encourage you to consider whether you need to create more freedom or opportunities for you or someone else to fail. To hear more clearly the signals that are coming back about what is needed to learn, to change, to grow, to try. The space you make for failure can be transformative. It can lead to greater success. It can also keep your family, your team, or you alive.

Quote of the Week: “Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.”

William Saroyan

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