I worried that I would fall.  In fact, I knew that I would fall. And, it was over 60 feet straight down to the hard-packed earth and underbrush below me. On my own, it felt like certain death.

Twenty years ago I confronted that challenge in the final section of the ropes course at Outward Bound’s mid-life career program in the wilds of northern Minnesota. The lessons that I learned from failing and falling have benefited me ever since.

I started with a string of successes. I climbed 60 feet up a tree to begin the ropes course and finished all of the initial sections—walking 30 feet on a narrow plank, pulling myself hand over hand on a rope between trees, and swinging from one platform to another. Despite uneasiness about heights and some nicks and bruises from being a little off target on a few moves, I completed each step successfully.

It was the last section of the course, the one they call the “Heebie-Jeebies,” that defeated me but taught me the most. The set up had a single thin steel cable strung 75 feet between two trees. Probably no one other than the Flying Walendas could have walked across it without falling.  Several other cables crisscrossed the single cable at sharp angles. I pondered, “How can I work my way through the tangle of cables, stay on the main cable, and make it to the other side without falling?” Feverishly, I tried to solve the problem, but I simply couldn’t see how I could get my six foot four inch, 200-pound body across without a hitch.

Here are the lessons the experience underscored.

  • Life and careers have ups and downs.

Despite hard work and a string of successes, we encounter situations in which we can’t gracefully succeed. The storybook career of ever-increasing responsibility and rewards sounds appealing. We feel confident from working through prior challenges that we should be able to pull off the next one.

The “Heebie-Jeebies” symbolizes the reality that we can get to places in our lives where success—at least on the terms we expect it—is not possible. The stock market turns south.  Board members wrest control of a business from the founder. A manager misjudges team dynamics and gets caught in a deadly crossfire of conflicting egos.

  • Sometimes falling is the best way to move forward.

Confronted with the “Heebie-Jeebies,” I faced a choice:  would I go forward to finish the ropes course knowing that I would fall or would I turn back? If I turned back, I would have to retrace all of my progress and also squeeze by everyone who was coming after me. That didn’t appeal to me at all.

So, even though I couldn’t figure out in advance how I could make it all of the way across, I decided to move forward. Indeed, that’s what I’ve learned about life and careers.  We can’t figure them all out in advance. We simply can decide to begin—and make sure that we have the support in place to survive the falls.

  • Be “on belay” with supportive and reliable people.

The key to safety on the ropes course is being “on belay” with two or more team members on the ground below.  That means being harnessed with a rope and pulley system so that when falls occur the support team holds onto the rope and we don’t go crashing to the ground.

Being “on belay” gave me the confidence to move forward, fall, and continue to the next platform.  It wasn’t without pain.  I bruised some knuckles, scraped a knee, and felt the cable digging into my hands as I pulled myself back up after several falls.  The benefit is that my body now reminds my head of important lessons for making it through the “Heebie-Jeebies” of life and career.

 Copyright © 2017 Don Maruska