What it Means to Fall

by Chris Kenton on September 2, 2011

Fall Mountain Biking

A couple of weeks ago I took a spectacular fall while mountain biking. I was pushing the limits on one of my favorite trails, riding full speed through a forest of redwoods, when my front wheel lost traction and I hit the deck. I slid about 20 feet through roots and rocks before rolling over the side of the trail and down a steep hill. I wound up with deep gashes on both arms and one knee, a wide swath of trail rash from shoulder to ankle, and what would later turn out to be a couple of fractures to the bones that make up my left shoulder. It now ranks among the top 5 falls since I started mountain biking seriously more than a decade ago.

Falling is an unfortunate fact of life with any difficult pursuit. The scars you rack up are like merit badges marking your progress, hopefully, to some kind of mastery. I fell 87 times my first year of mountain biking (I kept score once I realized it was going to be chronic) while trying to learn how to navigate switchbacks, climb boulders and dodge trees on steep descents.  My second year I fell only 10 times, but the fewer times I fell, the more dramatic the falls became since it took more to throw me off the bike.

Just as you get better at riding with practice, so it goes with falling. The cloud of shock and confusion clears up after a few good spills and in time you begin to feel present as a fall unfolds–the collapse of gravity, the awareness of arcing through space, the sampling of sensory inputs from each point of impact. The more tuned your awareness, the more you can process the mechanics of falling so you don’t repeat the same mistakes again. Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention? If you’re competitive, you learn to see falling as the outer edge of the envelope you have to constantly push to get better and start winning. If you’re not good with falling, you’re stalling.

What I never ponder after a fall is what it means. There’s no hidden mystery with falling. Every fall is just a challenge where the mechanical convergence of bike, body and terrain is something you can navigate successfully or you can’t. Falling is part of the process of identifying and resolving those challenges. You get up, you brush yourself off, and either you hit it again until you get it right, or you find a way around it–a decision rooted in whether or not you understand the mechanics of what went wrong and how to fix it.

Learning to fall has been an invaluable lesson for me in business, because in business it’s called failing, and there are so many tortured interpretations about the meaning of failure that it obscures the simple mechanics. You hear a lot of received wisdom from pundits about what it means to fail. Studies are conducted by major universities. Books are written. Conclusions are made that shape corporate policy. Some gurus say failure is a natural part of business that should be embraced as an opportunity to learn. Others say no, accepting failure breeds failure, and that only success breeds success. When you inevitably encounter some significant failure in business, all of these pronouncements become voices in your head, and you spend hours staring at the ceiling pondering what it all means.

If you find yourself in that position, just think about falling on a bike. No one who knows how to ride a bike did it without ever falling. The greater the rider, the harder the falls they’ve survived, and the more scars they have to prove it. The key is to forget about meaning and focus on mechanics. Don’t just get up and ride on ahead to the next fall. Take the time to understand the factors that led to the fall in the first place. Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention? Then get up, brush yourself off, and either hit it again until you get it right, or find a way around it. Let the pundits debate what it means.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon September 2, 2011 at 5:24 pm

I like the “falling in sport”, “failing in business” analogy with all the negative baggage around the business version of the action. The consequences of such negative bias is however large for I often see managers miss the chance of a real success as they aim to keep to the middle ground rather than risk a small fall. Or worse, even if they are willing to take an appropriate risk, too often there are regulations designed to protect them from a fall (although such regulations they didn’t seem to help in the lead up to the events of 2008).

In terms taking time “to understand the factors that led to the fall…Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention?” there is another significant factor – that of “luck” – that also comes into play. Sometimes a boulder just rolled onto your favourite bike path just around a blind corner; sometimes a carefully negotiated sale of a company unravels at the last moment as the would-be acquirer’s stock price takes a fall for unrelated and unpredictable reasons. When this happens, you “get up, brush yourself off” smile and realise that it is one of the wonderful unpredictabilities that is Life.

Chris Kenton September 2, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Well said–especially on the luck part. I’m just picking up “Outliers” and that definitely figures large into his narrative. I once had a tree fall about 20 feet away on a trail. Not only was I lucky enough to avoid it, but doubly lucky that it was behind me and I didn’t have to climb over it. :) f

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