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How Cerebral Palsy Taught Me to Fall, Not Fail

As I mature both in age and in understanding of myself and the world we live in, I’ve become increasingly convinced it is time for us to change our mindset and language regarding success and failure. I recently read a quote by former IBM president Thomas John Watson Sr. He states, “If you want to increase your success rate double your failure rate.” While I wholeheartedly agree with this premise, I would recommend that we begin replacing the word failure with falling. In my experience, there is a very distinct difference between falling and failing.

There have been times in my life where I have felt like I had failed at something, most notably several psychology exams during my undergraduate studies. I’ve found that having an attitude of failure or defeat doesn’t propel us toward our goals; rather, it adds more chains to hold us back. A synonym of failure is fault, which I find incredibly accurate. Whenever I’ve had an attitude of failure, my first tendency was to place blame on myself or others for not achieving my desired outcome. The attitude of failure can lead to self-pity, which ultimately leads to self-destruction. Self-pity is like a dense fog that prevents us from moving toward our achievements and looking for lessons in our past.

On the hand, falling cultivates an attitude of learning. It holds a lighter connotation than failing. Think of how we teach children to walk. They take a few steps, fall, and we help them up and tell them to try again. This needs to be our attitude in approaching our own shortcomings. Imagine if when your toddler fell your reaction was “You suck at walking! Why do you even try? You’re never going to walk so just keep crawling!” This sounds outrageous, but it’s what we say to ourselves when we fail. When we fall, it provides us with an opportunity to self-reflect on questions such as “what did I trip on?” “what was I doing well?” and “who can help me up?”

Throughout my life, I have been no stranger to falling, both figuratively and literally. As with many people who have lifelong disabilities, my early childhood was filled with several types of therapies multiple times per week. My biggest goal in these therapy sessions was to become as mobile as possible. For me, I knew that meant I needed to learn how to walk. Unlike most able-bodied kids, the process of learning to walk without any mobility devices lasted long into my grade school years. The length of this process granted me the opportunity to gain more experience with falling.

Although I fell many times in my younger years, one particular event still comes to mind. As a result of the progress I was making in physical therapy, I began to walk around the house independently nearing the end of first grade. One day after school I was walking down the hallway while talking to my younger sister, who was 3 at the time. As I approached the end of the hall, I lost my balance and fell backward, catching the corner of the wall. I immediately grabbed the back of my head and realized I had a little more than a bump. When my sister and I saw that my hand was now covered in blood, she began to scream, which drew the attention of my twin sister, my mom and my grandma, who were in the basement. Because this was my first experience with stitches, it seemed like the whole family met us at the emergency room. As my dad and grandparents arrived, everyone was anxious to hear my perspective on the accident. Rather than blaming my sister or refusing to walk again, I simply told them I shouldn’t have been talking while I was walking.

This story, among others, taught me a valuable life lesson that extends far beyond learning how to walk. It taught me that falling is inevitable, but we have a choice in how we respond. On that day in the emergency room, I could have very easily developed an attitude of failure, placing fault on myself or others for the state I found myself in. However, I chose to remember the progress I had made and looked for a lesson that could help me achieve my goal of walking independently. I learned I didn’t have enough competence in walking to multitask. Discovering this lesson also provided a new goal and motivation.

Although I learned to look for lessons in overcoming by literally falling, I have used these lessons from falling when attempting something new at school, in my transition from college into the workplace, even while I am writing this article. The inevitability of falling is relevant to any endeavor you may embark on. Until you achieve your goals and become a master of what you are facing, you’ll make mistakes and have some missteps. That’s OK! The wonderful and exciting thing about falling is that we have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our mission, and better define our path to success. Everything begins with little steps. If you fall while taking a step, you haven’t failed. Get up, learn from it and try again!

In order for you to turn your challenges into tools of freedom, I believe you must change your attitude and language. Are you feeling hopeless about being able to advance toward your goal? Perform an attitude check. We do not fail. We advance toward our goals, and we will fall, but we’ll learn, get back up and try again. If you adopt this method as I have, I believe you will not only feel better equipped for the future, but you’ll begin to see a clear path to achieving your goals.

This is an excerpt from Blake’s book “Breaking Chains.”

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Getty image by R. Donar.

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