It was fifty years ago and school was out for the summer. As I began my needed hiatus from educational instruction, I had to deal with some bad news from Collins Tract Elementary School. My report card contained the unfortunate announcement to my parents that my arithmetic grade had dropped since the previous marking period. I knew that they wouldn't understand, so I retreated across the street to explain my plight to my friend, Mr. Lee. I told him my version of the problem. Like a good psychotherapist, he restated what I had said: "You're stumbling academically in arithmetic, correct?" I nodded affirmatively. Mr. Lee understood my predicament, but more importantly, he wasn't yelling at me or grounding me. Then he nodded that I should sit down across from him.

Mr. Lee began a story about his youth spent in a Buddhist monastery in China. He told me about a foot race he had with someone who he really wanted to beat. Even though he was in the lead to almost the very end, Mr. Lee told me that he tripped just a couple of meters before the finish line and lost the race. His instructor, a Buddhist monk, went over to him and consoled him while making sure that he wasn't injured. Then he told Mr. Lee, "Next time, when you fall, fall forward-you will gain ground. Had you fallen forward in this race, you might have won. Life is a lot like a race. Sometimes, you'll stumble and fall. Make sure that you fall forward and gain ground even when you stumble. Don't make the fall worse by falling backwards."

I readily understood Mr. Lee's story of the race and the monk's admonition, but I didn't see how his story applied to my trouble with my arithmetic grade. After another few minutes of instruction, Mr. Lee explained that falling is often inevitable and out of our control, but we have a choice which way we fall.

In the half century since my falling arithmetic grade, I have discovered the wisdom of my mentor from long ago. I have fallen many times but have tried always to fall forward. Here are several ideas that will help you to fall forward:

  1. Look squarely at the failure. Don't avoid dealing with the unpleasantness of the mistake. Years after my instruction about falling forward, I came across the following quote from the American philosopher, George Santayana: "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness...when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it...This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience." Trying to ignore failure will merely assure more frequent failures in the future. If you are presently coping with a failed relationship, don't rush to put it behind you before analyzing why it didn't work. Discover the various factors that played a part in the breakup.
  2. Apply the learnings from your fall to your life. Incorporate these learnings so that you don't make the same mistake over and over again. If you discovered that your eating habits and sedentary lifestyle were contributing to your high cholesterol and blood pressure, do something about it. Have your doctor put you on an appropriate diet and follow your physician's exercise recommendations.
  3. Acquire a positive mental attitude. Failure is often a better soil in which to grow success than the soil of success. Failure provides a wake-up call and the motivation to make necessary changes to convert failure into success. If your child is having trouble in school, you can view the trouble as a blessing rather than a curse. The trouble can marshal your energies to resolve the problem. Without the problem, your child might merely coast through school without really getting a good education.
  4. Network with those who can help you win the particular race. If you are stumbling toward retirement and fear that you haven't done all that you should have done to prepare for life after you retire, contact a financial planner. Get expert advice to assist in your life's race.

If you put Mr. Lee's advice and these suggestions to use in the running of your life, you will be able to gain ground even when you fall. Have a productive run.