My daughter is a gymnast. She’s just five years old (“five-and-a-half, which is really more like six,” if you ask her), so she’s still learning the basics. Watching her class last week, I realized something – her coaches are teaching her how to fall. They’re teaching her how to turn a wobbly handstand into a somersault, how to hold her body and fall backwards into a pit, how to do a handstand on the beam and fall off onto a mat, how to flip around the bar and slowly lower herself to the ground. Sometimes she loses control and falls wrong. Sometimes it scares her. But her coaches pick her back up and she tries again. She’s learning how to overcome her fear of falling, the instinct to freeze, to panic, to flail, to lose control before she hits the ground. She’s learning what to do when it all goes wrong and she’s learning how to keep trying — because falling is inevitable in gymnastics. Even Gabby Douglas learned how to fall before she learned how to flip.
Sitting there, it dawned on me that how to fall is something we all need to learn. A “life lesson,” if you will, and a good one to have as you enter your professional career. When you start your first job, you’re afraid to make mistakes. You don’t want to look stupid, you don’t want to lose your boss’s respect, you want to be perfect. You’re afraid to fall. Maybe you freeze. You’re too careful, you don’t take risks, you never put yourself out there, you do exactly what’s expected of you, no less, no more – and you never get “noticed” by the higher-ups. You have an ordinary career with ordinary success and never reach the top. Your fear of falling keeps you from climbing higher.
Or maybe you do take a risk. Maybe you do put yourself out there — and fall. It may even be an epic fall, and you don’t know what to do. You could panic, you could lose control. Or you could keep calm and control the fall. Admit your mistake. Ask your boss for help. Mitigate the damage. Then learn from it and try again…and again…and again. I’ve fallen a lot. I’m sure I’ll keep falling, and I’m sure I’ll be humiliated and feel like a total idiot many more times in my life. But that’s ok — I’m always better for it.
My first year out of law school, my firm was acting as local counsel for a firm in Chicago (I was still practicing in California at the time). We were representing a corporation in a lawsuit by the EEOC. One afternoon, the EEOC attorney called me a few minutes before 5pm, asking for an extension on a filing deadline that would run in less than an hour — they were having trouble with their copier. They couldn’t reach counsel in Chicago because of the time difference. I called Chicago myself but couldn’t reach anyone. I walked down to my boss’s office, but he had left for the day. It was up to me. In my experience, it was a professional courtesy for attorneys to cooperate on things like this — I had asked opposing counsel in other cases I handled for extensions and vice versa – so I agreed to a 24 hour extension. The next morning, Chicago counsel called me…. Apparently, opposing counsel had asked them for an extension earlier in the day and they had refused — it was a strategic move. My stomach sank. I felt like an idiot. I may have cost my firm a client, and I didn’t know what to do. As humiliated as I was, I went to my boss, told him about my mistake, and asked for help controlling the damage. While we couldn’t do anything about the extension, he was able to smooth things over with Chicago counsel so we didn’t lose the client. It could have been much worse.
When you make a mistake, especially a big one, it’s hard to get past it. You may find yourself dwelling on it or wanting to give up and never take a risk again. But that would be foolish. The beautiful thing about mistakes is that you can learn from them — they actually make you better. My mistake taught me to be more skeptical. Coming out of law school, having learned so much about ethics, I believed other attorneys would have the same standards — going into it, most young attorneys are a little naïve. My experience quickly disabused me of this notion and actually prepared me for another case I handled just a few months later, this time as lead counsel. Opposing counsel on that case would prove to be the most unethical, underhanded attorneys I ever dealt with, but having learned my lesson the first time, I never fell for their attempts to gain an unfair advantage. I succeeded because of it.
Falling down, getting back up, and learning from the experience made me a better attorney. My subsequent success also overshadowed my initial mistake — a year later, that same Chicago firm recruited me. If I had given up or withdrawn into the background, forever unsure of myself, I never would have gained that opportunity.
We all make mistakes. We all fall. It’s how we fall and what we do when we hit the ground that determines our fate — not the fall itself. Don’t let the fear of falling keep you from trying, and don’t let your mistakes devastate you. Learn from them and move on. If my five year old can do it, so can you.