Our children’s lives are filled with “firsts” - their first day of school, their first soccer game, their first time riding a bike, their first exam, their first date, their first time away from home. They would probably not classify all of these as exciting experiences, some might be considered terrifying experiences. Yet, I admire how they march on each day into a world that is full of new adventures and personal challenges.
As parents, it is often tempting to want to protect our children from this scary world. We want them to succeed so badly that we often feel the need to set them up in situations that will only offer them the possibility of success. This is where one of the greatest challenges of parenting lies – allowing our children to experience failure and disappointment. Through these experiences they build their inner resilience, their ability to bounce back from whatever life throws their way. They learn that their self worth is not defined by their successes, but by their willingness to try and to rebound from whatever the outcome.
I love Michael Jordan’s quote on the true meaning of success. He said, “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
Unlike our children who face many great challenges as they grow, as we get older, it is easy to become accustomed to our routine and to what we feel comfortable doing. When I turned 40, I realized that I missed that thrill of putting myself outside of my comfort zone and learning what it feels like to try something new. So, at the ripe old age of 40, I decided to attempt an Olympic triathlon. I always wanted to complete a marathon or a triathlon. Each year I would come up with a million reasons why I would not be able to do it. This time I was determined to push myself forward and accept this personal challenge.
Let me assure you that I am not a hardcore athlete. I have always been committed to staying fit with moderate exercise as part of my weekly routine, but I was not a runner, biker or swimmer at the onset of this personal challenge. Yet, after many months of training, I became a swimmer, runner and biker. Look at that – a new definition of me at age 40! I had already accomplished something.
After many months of training, the time had come to attempt my first Olympic triathlon. This involved a .9 mile swim in the chilly waters of the Long Island Sound, a 25 mile bike ride up and down the hills of Westchester County, and a 6.2 mile run to complete the race. Despite my rigorous training, the night before the triathlon I was terrified. I am not a huge fan of fear and anxiety, but I am a huge fan of what happened next. I found myself involved in quite an amazing self-coaching exercise. I began to tell myself that I was prepared, that I had done everything that I could do to prepare for this day, that I would put my safety first throughout the race and if I ever felt that I could get hurt, I could always simply stop. I reminded myself that it was just a race, and finish or not, I was going to try. My family would love me just the same whether I came in first, last or didn’t finish at all. They were proud of me for simply trying. Most importantly, I was incredibly proud of myself.
On the morning of the race, as the sun was rising over the beach where we would start our swim, I watched the physically challenged athletes enter the water first. Many of these individuals were without an arm or leg, or both. I was in awe of their courage and the incredible stories of hard work, determination and sheer will power that got them to this moment. Those brave individuals inspired me to get into that cold water and do my best. I spent the next three hours taking it literally one stroke, one push of the pedal and one stride at a time, focusing on my breath the whole way and telling myself that I could do this. At the top of the highest climb on my bicycle, I was brought to tears by an incredible feeling of accomplishment. I realized that I could actually do this.
Much to my great relief and amazement, I finished! I did not finish at the front of the pack, but I finished. My family was there at the finish line to cheer me on and give me big hugs when I was done. But it wasn’t their praise that I felt most, it was the incredible feeling that at the age of 40 I had done something that I never thought I could do. I had experienced another "first" in my life. I persevered, pushed myself and overcame my fears. I was left with a strong sense that the human mind and body is capable of incredible things through sheer will and determination. In many ways, I felt like a child again, experiencing the thrill of stepping outside of my comfort zone, and the pride that I gave it a try. Just like in life, I thought, we have to have faith in ourselves, face our fears, and take each moment as they come, one step at a time, by simply putting one foot in front of the other each step of the way.
I am not suggesting that everyone should run out and sign up for a triathlon. I am suggesting that there is great value in stepping outside of your comfort zone and encouraging your children to do the same. It can be as a simple as trying a sport that you have always wanted to try, planning a trip that you have always dreamed of taking, or signing up for a class that has always peaked your interest. Whatever it is, there is so much to be gained from putting yourself out there. The only way to fail is by never giving it a try.