To Learn, You Have To Fall
Posted on July 18th, 2013

By Amy Sellors

trick-skiingWhen I was a kid, I took water-skiing lessons. My dad first taught me to water-ski when I was 7, I went to water-ski camp and every year, when our family would vacation at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, my brothers and I would all take lessons there. Water-skiing was a big deal at Callaway Gardens—there was even a daily water-ski show. It was here that my older brothers all learned to water-ski barefoot and do jumps, and that I learned how to do 180 and 360 degree spins on trick skis. (Note: trick skis are wide, with rounded ends, the design of which allows tricks to be performed, such as spins. Skiers can use one or two small trick skis.)

One summer afternoon when I was 12, I had a water-skiing lesson scheduled with Doug. I really liked Doug. He was a great water skier. He always played the clown in the show: if you have ever seen a water-skiing show, you know that the clown can ski circles around the other skiers—sometimes literally! Doug was really nice, and I wanted to impress him, so, I was amazing in my lesson: I never fell. We went around and around the lake, and I never even got my hair wet! I was so pleased with myself.

When then lesson had finished, and we were swimming back to the dock with our skis, Doug looked over at me and said, “So, you’re pleased with yourself?” “Yes, I am,” I said, “I never even got my hair wet!” Sweeping his arm across the water and soaking me, he said, “That was a waste of your parents’ money. You only did tricks you already knew how to do. You didn’t learn anything new because you never risked falling.” I was silent—and very embarrassed. I had no idea what to say. He was absolutely right. I wanted to impress him and show off, but this had been a lesson. His job was to teach me something new and my job was to learn something new, but I was either too proud, or not brave enough, to do this. When we got back to the dock I put my skis back on the rack and left. I might have mumbled “goodbye” or “thanks”, but I don’t remember.

What I wish I could tell Doug now is that the lesson I learned that day was more effective than any water-skiing trick I might have attempted. I learned that in order to learn, you have to be willing to fall; to improve, you have to take a risk. If you play it safe, you’re just resting on your laurels.

Too often in adult learning we play it safe. When we’re the learners, we stand on the sidelines. We let somebody else be the first one to try something. We nod our heads when we don’t really understand. We discuss solutions “in theory” rather than “in practice.” As teachers and coaches, we want everyone to feel happy and positive about their learning experience. We want to receive feedback that says “I had fun learning today”, when we should be striving for is “While today’s learning was really challenging, it was also incredibly valuable. Thank you.” We want to protect the learner from feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed as they learn. But why?! What have any of us got to lose?

If you are the teacher or coach, remain supportive and incorporate practice into your sessions. Invite learners to step out of their comfort zones. Allow them to try and allow them to fail. In the failing will be the lesson. Before you can learn a skill you have to be open-minded enough to realize that you need the skill. If you failed and you didn’t like that experience, then you won’t make the same mistakes again. Discomfort is an excellent position from which to start learning because, from this position, change is possible.

water-skiing 2Every day I encounter learners who dislike some aspect of their job—whether it’s dealing with customers, making presentations or coaching their team. Their behaviour hasn’t changed over the years because they have never been challenged to look at the things they dislike about their jobs and explore options on how to make them better. Instead, they repeat the disagreeable tasks and their resentment grows.

If you are the learner, ask yourself if learning and growing isn’t worth a little discomfort. If part of your daily work makes you feel awkward, wouldn’t it be worth it to try new solutions that might remedy the situation—even if you might not succeed the first time?

We live in a world where we believe there are magic fixes. Attention spans are short and we think we can cure everything with a pill. In learning, you may have to fail a few times before the learning sticks.

After my revelatory session with Doug, I had another water-skiing lesson. In this session, I tried doing 180 and 360 degree spins on only one trick ski. I fell repeatedly, looking like a drowned rat. And I learned! I mastered those tricks and went on to water-ski barefoot and do jumps just like my older brothers.Every summer now when I ski, I am faced with the question of showing-off for my friends or actually honing my skills. Amazingly, honing my skills accomplishes both feats.

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