Yesterday evening, I almost bumped into a little girl learning to cycle.
I was turning a blind corner in the basement of my apartment and in the blink of an eye, almost out of nowhere appeared right in front of me, this little girl on an unsteady bicycle. My headlights beamed straight into her small startled face. Now if someone had flashed a light on my face, I am quite certain I would have looked even more in shock. It was only then that I saw her dad, who was running after her desperately trying to get her to stop. With a sheepish grin on his face that belied the gravity and seriousness of what could have happened, he waved an apologetic hand and quickly guided the bicycle away. It took a few moments for my heartbeat to come back to normal - time enough to pause and reflect on the seriousness of the accident that had just been averted and time enough also to reflect on how my own children had learnt to cycle.
I can still vividly remember the bruises on their knees because one of them was adamant on removing the "training wheels" much earlier than he should have. But to his credit, he took many a fall on his chin and laboured on till he managed to ride on unassisted. Meanwhile, my father and I would take turns to assume the role of the training wheels - the memory of grandfather bending over and jogging along, with a supporting hand on the grandson's bicycle is one that will stay with me forever.
A sketch sent in by a dear friend after reading this note..
The other fellow was less adventurous (at least at that age!). He was much more cautious and careful, and he had no issues with the training wheels being on. His problem was that he just could not grasp the concept of pedalling full-circle. For some strange reason, he would only pedal half-circle and then bring the pedals slightly back and push again another half-circle. So, in effect it would always be the same foot pushing down on the pedals, unlike normal cycling where both feet alternatively push down on the pedals. I don't know why he could not do the full-circle pedalling initially, but one day everything just clicked, and he began to pedal full-circle as if that is how he had been doing it for ever. I remember that in contrast, he did not have too many falls - mainly because he agreed to keep the training wheels on for a much longer time, until he had sufficient balance to not use them at all.
It is interesting to note that somewhere along the way, this ultra-safe attitude has fallen off somewhat, because this same fellow did not think twice about taking the car off on his own when my wife and I were away. Apart from a few serious scratches and dents on one side and a broken tail-light, there was not much other collateral damage - thankfully! He did not consider seriously enough, the dangers his action could pose on himself and more importantly on those around. On the other hand, the other fellow has become noticeably less adventurous and I dare say would think slightly longer and slightly harder now, about the implications of such an act. Contrary to what I used to believe, children do change their basic nature over the years as they grow up! But that I guess, is what growing up is all about!
As with learning to cycle, our initial attempts at doing a lot of things fail, and most often, fail miserably. If we have ever tried our hand in the kitchen, I am sure we can all remember how disfigured our first omelette or pancake looked! But what is really interesting is that we look at life so differently. While we are all ready to accept wholeheartedly that we will need to fall down before we learn to cycle well and that we will need to have messed a few pancakes before we make the perfect pancake, we are not so forgiving on ourselves and on others when it comes to matters of life.
With cycling, we accept a fall as a necessary first-step for eventual success. Yet with life, we react in a completely different manner - we fear failure so much that we are not even ready to get on to the bicycle, in the first place. We are not ready to accept that all those falls in fact help us to grow and improve. There is such a stigma around failure, that very often we end up not doing the things that we would otherwise have loved to do.
Most of this can be attributed to the way we are taught and brought up - in our schools, in our homes and in society generally. A failed exam is a big blemish, a big blot, something that will haunt us forever. Unfortunately, in our schools, the fear of failure has been stretched even further - it is no longer the fear of failing an exam, it has sadly become the fear of not scoring full marks or, God forbid, getting lesser marks than the neighbour's kid. Looking back at my own school life, I lose count of the number of children who were put down because of their inability to score marks in an exam, kids who were all brilliant in their own different ways and are now living proof to the dangers of writing off children too early and for the wrong reasons.
At the risk of sounding cliched, we need to accept that it is ok to fail an exam, that it is ok to fall in life also, that it may take slightly longer for some us to learn to pedal full-circle. But in the end, it will not matter so much in the larger scheme of things - for each fall would have prepared us that much more to stand up stronger and to come out better. More importantly, we would have learnt some crucial lessons - to accept failure and to learn from it rather than falling into despair and giving up at the first instance, to keep going at something till we eventually succeed despite failing initially and to at least give something a try rather than not even attempting it because of the fear of failure.
These are indeed some of the most important life-lessons that we can learn and impart.