Begin Again: From Failure to Success
We expect success in a flash. What if you fail? How do you handle it? This article shares how a particular mindset opens the door to true excellence.
A leadership program I loved taught life concepts through memorable physical activities. I rely regularly on the gift of one of those lessons.
The activity involved moving a marble through space and up a hill, via multiple three-foot lengths of plastic PVC pipe. One person standing in place held each piece. There were 22 of us, so there were 22 sections of pipe. Most of the pipe sections were sliced in half the long way, so the marble could fall off at any point. To succeed at our task, we could not talk, move our feet, let the marble stop, or drop the marble. If we did, we had to start over.
The first person received the marble on one end of their pipe and let it roll. Plop! It fell off the side. The idea was to control its motion to the other end and then pass it smoothly to the next section and so on to the end. The pipe also had to be lifted while the marble rolled, in order to progress up the hill.
Plop! Plop! Plop! The next three attempts did not make it to the end of the first section of pipe. In fact, the first eleven attempts did not make it onto the second pipe section.
After each failed attempt, our guide said simply, Begin Again. And the marble went back to the start.
It took 21 attempts for the marble to make it to the end of the second section. I, by the way, held the nineteenth section of the pipe, so I was pretty far from the action.
We began again and again and again.
We spent a good part of an afternoon standing on that hill. As people who expect to succeed, this sucked! We faced failure after failure.
I felt frustration, judgment, impatience and boredom as I watched the marble – way over there – dropping to the ground over and over. For crying out loud! Those folks up front are sure uncoordinated, I thought. My neighbors were frustrated too. The mood was angry. We were getting nowhere, doing nothing, and time was being wasted.
One try made it up to the fifth section. Still not even a quarter of the way!
The string of attempts went on so long that the frustration wore us out. It was no longer sustainable. Maybe we accepted that this job was going to take time. Something surprising and magical happened. The collective mood shifted.
Perhaps we got curious. We let go of the urgent desire to succeed and got interested in the process. Will we ever be able to do this? What aren’t we thinking of? What can we learn by watching the others? (Asked in silence since we were not to talk)
We began to see the cause and effect of subtle moves. We began to value small gains. Dropping the marble was no longer a big deal. Of course we were going to drop it! One person might drop it 10 times. In the big picture there was still progress.
The marble makes it to #11 before it drops.
Then it drops at #2.
Then it drops at #9
And, one time it makes it to #13 before it drops! More than half way now!
And on we went. Begin Again. Begin Again.
I can tell you we did, indeed, succeed in moving that marble through all 22 pieces of pipe. And we did it before the sun set. We were breathing together as one organism during those final runs, 22 souls gently willing that marble to keep moving, slowly and steadily.
We cheered when the marble finally rolled off the end of section 22. There was another layer of feeling in the group as well. It was something like, “Of course…”
Every moment we spent had added up to that result. From impossible to inevitable.
That lesson stayed with me.
Begin again. When online dating turns up one date after another that is far from a match.
Begin again. When my search for a house goes on for over a year.
Begin again. When I boss (and undermine) my elderly Dad for the eleventh time.
Begin again. When I criticize my partner.
Begin again. When I judge myself for being inadequate.
Of course there will be failures. That’s OK because there is a bigger picture.
When I release urgency and judgment and stay the course, I am able to learn. What seems unreachable may, actually, be in the early stages of happening.
Where might you Begin Again?