Facing Angry Bears & other Realities

“Don’t be afraid to take a big step when one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small steps.” — David Lloyd George

It sure sounds like good advice. One should not be too timid or play it too safe. Sometimes you need to take a chance but notice that it’s recommended only when it’s “indicated.” Therein lies the rub. How do you tell when it’s indicated? Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you; but you may want to double check to be sure the attack is imminent before you pursue hand to paw combat with the bear. If you detect angry bear breath, it’s likely indicated.

That clarifies the “indicated” part of the advice but what about the “Don’t be afraid” part? It’s not at all obvious why an absence of fear is either important or required. Suggesting that one should or can confront life’s angry bears without a good measure of fear and trepidation is absurd. Were David Lloyd George here today to discuss the point, a line from Rudyard Kipling would be apropos, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

That leaves only the issue of not being able to cross a chasm in two small steps. It sounds like one is being encouraged to leap and pray. That’s like jumping off a cliff and hoping you can fly. Maybe this is good advice but only if that angry bear is actually snapping at your heel. If not, you might take time to build a bridge, consider climbing down the cliff and back up the other side, or perhaps finding a trail around the chasm. Whether the cost of staying where you are is worth the risk of falling in is also likely worth a moment of careful contemplation. As Alexander Pope admonished, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

The conclusion is that the advice embedded in the quote is pithy but suspect. It implies that reluctance to take “a big step” reflects cowardice and maybe even a serious lack of character. Neither is true. George’s advice is certainly food for serious thought but should only be consumed with a large grain of salt.

Okay, if you have those angry bears in perspective, here is what you need to know about the reality of success and failure. “A man may fall many times, but he won’t be a failure until he says that someone pushed him.” — Elmer G. Letterman

The psychology of success and failure is complex but not particularly hard to understand. It starts with personal responsibility. Unless you accept the responsibility for failure, you can’t take the credit for success. Either you are the agent of your life outcomes or the victim of people who are pushing you down. What Letterman didn’t say is that, if you blame others for pushing you down, people other than you deserve the praise for pushing you ahead.

Separating yourself from what you do comes next. As William D. Brown put it, “Failure is an event, never a person.” Your success and failure aren’t who you are. They are merely what you do. S.I. Hayakawa expanded on the same theme, “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, ‘I have failed three times,’ and what happens when he says, ‘I am a failure.'” The key is in how you manage life’s events, not in the events themselves. Robert Allen expressed it like this, “There is no failure. Only feedback.”

Now consider what you do with the feedback life provides. Napoleon Hill observed, “The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail.” It’s not enough to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and climb back on that horse that threw you. You need a better plan for staying in the saddle. Sure, getting up and starting over is tough. Yes, that damn horse may throw you again. Indeed, your new plan may not work any better than the old one; but it’s like Beverly Sills said, “You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.”

Thomas Edison managed the disappointment this way, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work;” and Samuel Beckett had a similar persistent optimism, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” With role models like Edison and Beckett, you can hardly go wrong, so long as you keep trying. As Charles F. Kettering put it, “One fails forward toward success.”

George E. Woodberry knew the essence of success, “Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” Continuing effort is seldom elegant or easy; but Elbert Hubbard’s simple point may be all you actually need to know, “There is no failure except in no longer trying.” With that said, Mary Pickford gets the last word on the psychology of success and failure, “Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”