Learning To Fall Is Good!


How Should We Think About Computing (and other) Competitions?

In the winter of 2007 I, Gerry Donaldson, took X-country ski lessons at Canada Olympic Park [COP]. I had X-country skiied for years but never learned the correct techniques of doing so.

Each time I went skiing at COP, I witnessed young children, about 4-8 years of age, falling down all over the hill. They would take several strides, fall down, laugh, get back up, take more strides, fall down, laugh ... and seemed to be having the time of their lives. I also noticed older children, about 8-11 years of age, zooming both up and down the hill with significantly more skill than I. They too were laughing and chatting with friends and having a great time. They would still occasionally fall, though less frequently, but when they did they would still laugh, immediately get back up, and continue laughing and chatting and skiing about the hill.

I realized then that COP's X-country skiing youth had learned a very important lesson about life. Falling is part of living. It is in fact fun to fall because if you're not falling, you're probably not living. Nobody is born with the fully realized skill to ski, drive a car or solve challenging computing problems with the aid of a computer programming language. If you're not falling, then you're not growing. It really is that simple.

A truly tragic thing has happened in our society. Somehow many (most) people have come to believe that they should get 80% or 90% or more on every test or they ought not to take the test for fear of "failure". Somehow many (most) people have come to define a low performance as "failure". Somehow many (most) people have come to turn their collective backs on the very process that leads to excellence and great skill. Somehow many (most) people have come to fear falling down.

In this course, about once per month, you will get the opportunity to live and grow. You will get the opportunity to be challanged so well that maybe, if you are lucky, you will experience an invigorating struggle, significant frustration, and the exuberance of "falling down". If you are lucky, instead of snoozing your way to high performance at a low level of challenge, you will learn the thrill and determined satisfaction that comes from confronting perplexing problems that require ever widening experience and ever deepening resolution and persistance. You will learn to fall down, laugh, get up, and fall down again. You will learn the fun of chanllenge and, in due course, you will experience the high skill of performance.

Always seek to challenge yourself. If you're not falling, then you're not challenged. If you're flying down the hill without hiccups, then its time to find a more challenging hill.

In competition, do not be discouraged when you fall. Instead be thankful that you have experienced a challenge which, by the very nature of falling, will lead to accelerated growth. We grow most when reaching over your head.

The greatest accomplishments are achieved through persistance, the ability to keep going when others throw in the towel. This ability is cultivated by challenging yourself. Mandela sat in an apartheid prison for 27 years waiting for the opportunity to lead South Africans to freedom. Can you survive three hours of difficult problem solving?

Get the lay of the land. Our first objective is to identify the problem. Only then can we set about devising a solution. We get the lay of the land by wandering the land. We jump and fall, rise. run, and fall again, rise again, twist and turn and fall again. With each fall comes a keener and more thorough knowledge of the landscape. Sooner than we expect, we learn the knooks and crannies and hills and vales. Sooner than we would believe, we become intrepid guides identifing solutions where others see only obstacles. We perform at high levels of expertise because ... we have had the benefits and fun of frequently falling down. We have learned the lay ofthe land.


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