Last month, I observed a toddler who was attempting to walk. He struggled, yet persisted. He toddled to the right, he wobbled to the left, and he spent more time on his behind than on his feet. Each attempt resulted in him falling short of his goal, but each attempt gave him reason to try a slightly different approach. Last week, I saw that same toddler and he was walking across the room. He still had plenty of room for improvement, but he had grown much in a short period of time because, despite the fact that he fell countless times, each attempt was informed by that which preceded it; he fell short differently each time.

I recently completed what I consider to be my most challenging assignment. I served as the Executive Assistant to a Four-Star Admiral. I say it was the most challenging because it was the furthest outside my comfort zone and quite honestly did not play to what I consider my strengths. As I was watching that toddler a few weeks back, I couldn’t help but see myself. During that 13 month adventure, which was a true gift, I fell short differently each day. Sometimes, I was able to catch my fall; other times,¬†a teammate would pick up what I may have dropped; on occasion, I fell flat on my face in front of the man I was charged with supporting. There were days when I went home and told my wife that “today may have been my last day,” as I was sure the most recent fall was reason to make it my last in that position. I made many mistakes, but I prided myself on not making the same mistake twice. There were times when the Admiral saw that I was being especially hard on myself. It was those times when he would share a story about his own mistakes serving in a similar capacity years ago. They were good for both a laugh and an acknowledgment that he saw past the most recent mistake.

During my check-out last week, we talked about the adventure that we had shared and the journey on which I was about to embark. When I acknowledged that I struggled in one way or another on a weekly, if not daily basis, he smiled and replied, “Sean, if it was easy it wouldn’t have been meaningful.” He then went on to thank me for doing what he assessed to be a really good job. Having personally experienced his constructive criticism in the past, his compliment was especially validating. I had fallen short on many occasions, but the complete body of work evidently met the standard.

Throughout my time as a member of the personal staff, I joked with the rest of the team that my mission statement was to “Fall Short DIFFERENTLY Each Day.” One member made it his own by shaping it into “Fail A Little Differently Each Day” (FALDED – pronounced Fall Dead). Though I had trouble at the time, I now look back at each time I fell and smile. I smile because of what I learned, how I have grown, and who I continue to become as a result. Odds are that we learned more in the classes where we struggled for a C than when we coasted to an A. Just as that toddler learned to walk by falling short differently over and over, we learn more through failure than we do through success. We are quick to congratulate those who succeed because they succeed. All too often we overlook the persistence exemplified by those who care enough to misstep and make mistakes. The truth is that we are most likely to succeed when we are willing to risk failure. We are most likely to learn through our¬†mistakes. And we are most likely to reach our potential if we create experiences where we find ourselves falling short differently on a regular basis.

Today is my first day in my new job. I expect to fall short differently (at least in my eyes) each day and I hope those across the team with whom I am leading care enough to do the same.

  • When is the last time you fell short? Are you coasting? Missing growth opportunities?
  • Who in your life might benefit from venturing outside their comfort zone and risk falling short?
  • The next time you see someone fall short, will you applaud or condemn them?