Beginner’s Luck: Failing Forward

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images for Ironman

Failure is a massive gift, writes Meredith Atwood.

When I started triathlon, I was no good at swimming, cycling, or running. Years and years later, I am still not that much better. I suppose that is not completely true—but sometimes it can feel that way.

I have learned in recent years about the art of “failing forward,” and what it means to keep going—even when we have a disastrous roadblock, fall, or disaster in our way. Even when we might not be so “great” at swimming, biking, or running—or triathlon at all. “Success” all depends on how we look at the sport and what meaning we are taking from our hard work.

Failure is a massive gift. The messed-up race, incomplete training day, or devastating injury can sometimes be the greatest things to happen to us. However, failure, in order to be beneficial, requires the art of the rebound.

The rebound is where the success happens, change rivets us and failing becomes a forward motion. Without the rebound—we very well may find ourselves stuck.

Recently, one of my athletes was in the doldrums during the start of his long-distance training. The training load felt too scary, too big—and instead of executing what he could do each day, he chose not to do anything. Nothing at all. Because the workouts weren’t perfect and he was “failing” at the big plan, he was then putting his head in the sand, avoiding it all.

This wasn’t going to work. I knew it, and he knew it—but what would we do about it. I wasn’t technically sure what was best for the psychological struggle that was happening, so I took a leap.

I scrubbed his training plan and inserted two weeks of daily, one-mile runs (sometimes walks). That was it. With the description: “If you don’t have one mile for yourself, then something needs to change.” He texted me after the first day: “I needed to make myself a priority. And damn right I found time for one mile. And if that wasn’t an amazing mile at a record pace.” And it was. Hot damn.

The reason I could help him? Well, because I was in the middle of my own version of failing forward. I had the worst year ever. I was down. I could help him because I knew what it meant, and I knew that I had to rebound. I knew he had to rebound.

With rebounding, we accept that sometimes failing is the biggest gift of all.

Failure is a gift because it affords us the time, energy and pause to say, “What can I do about this? What can I do better next time? How can I change? What isn’t working?”  We can ask ourselves questions like, “If I don’t have one mile for myself… then what?”

During my tough time, I knew realized that I had to let some things go. The things I let go were not “failures,” but they were movements forward. My life, I realized, was not one big chess game. And I was tired of treating it like one. With failing, I understood, maybe for the first time truly, that things change, people change—and thank goodness for that. Every day is a new chance to succeed or fail—or, depending on our outlook—do both.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is an attorney, speaker, Ironman triathlete, and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman: You Can Be a Triathlete. Yes. You., being re-released in 2019. She is the host of the podcast, The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com. In addition to Triathlon, she has another book due out Fall 2019.