The Toddler Mind – Failing Forward

One of the areas where I scrape my knees and bang my head is around failure. The way I’m defining failure is simple: “the inability to meet an expectation.”


Why can failure be such an emotionally devastating reality? Why do we say “I’m a failure!” when it’s more accurate to say “I failed!”

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling,
but in rising every time we fall. (
Nelson Mandela)

It’s obvious in life we aren’t going to do what we set out to do perfectly or correctly every time we try. We must be prepared to fall before we eventually rise to complete or succeed at what we set out to do.

The attitude needed to keep you out of the “I’m a failure” ditch is the same attitude a toddler has when he learns to walk. They go through an unconscious process and eventually meet their expectation of eventually walking.

I need to move towards my expectations like a toddler learns to walk. Here’s how it works.

The Toddler Learns to Walk (an inside look at the unconscious process):

  1. I need to stand and walk.
  2. I am determined to get upright no matter what it takes.
  3. I will take a step and the risk of falling will not distract me.
  4. I fall down – this happens a lot! Oh well.
  5. I get up and attempt to get upright again.
  6. I get frustrated some times when I fall and cry occasionally. Crying however is like a passing thunderstorm pouring down buckets of rain but ending quickly.  I’m not embarrassed by the emotion and the tears.
  7. I do not judge myself for falling –it’s just part of learning to walk. It’s all about experimentation and trying repeatedly.
  8. Finally I walk! I take three steps before falling. Yay!
  9. I repeat steps 1 through 8 all over again. It’s just what I do!*

The learning?

  • We need to develop a toddler mind when it comes to the expectations we are striving to meet. Spend less time worrying and more time practicing and taking your next step!

Learning to do stairs

For 16 months during my recovery journey I had the use of only one leg. This meant learning to walk on one leg and two crutches. It also meant learning to climb stairs with one good leg, one crutch and an arm rail.

Since our home is up one flight of stairs, I couldn’t leave the hospital until I learned the skill of doing stairs with on one leg, one crutch and one arm rail. The first attempt with the help of the Physiotherapist was a “fail.” I couldn’t figure out the technique, the steps were too high and I ended up hobbling back to my room discouraged and exhausted.  “We’ll try again tomorrow” the Physiotherapist said with a smile (they always smile!).

When we came out to attempt the stairs on the second day, we decided to try the other side of the practice staircase where the steps are half the height. I remember the feeling of excitement when I did it! Then went back to bed.

The third day, it was time to try the full sized steps again and this time I succeeded!

Looking back on that experience, quitting wasn’t an option. I had the encouragement of others and the inner resolve to meet an expectation I knew was realistic and within reach. When I was met with failure, I allowed myself time to process the disappointment like a passing thunderstorm, vent my emotion, rest and get up the next day to try again.

5 Principles for Failure Forward

1.      Set realistic expectations 

If your expectations are beyond your reach in terms of talent, resources or skill level, you might be stretching too far too fast. A healthy toddler will walk eventually!

2.     Self correct as you go

If you don’t learn from falling, you’ll never walk.

It isn’t making mistakes that’s critical; it’s correcting them
and getting on with the principle task.
(Donald Rumsfeld)

 3.     Learn early in life to fail and keep learning

There is the greatest practical benefit in
making a few failures early in life.
(T.H. Huxley)

4.     The path you fall on is the same route you take to walk

Failure and success are achieved on the same path and it’s delusional to think you’ll never fall when learning to walk. The same principle applies to meeting any expectations. Expect to fall on your way to meeting your expectation.

Most people think of success and failure as opposites,
but they are actually both products of the same process. (Roger von Oech)

 5.     Develop a short memory

Toddlers have a short memory. We’d do well to develop one of our own when it comes to remembering all the time we fell in meeting expectations.

Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what
you’re going to do now and do it.
(William Durant)

*Adapted from Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart by Mary Beth O’Neill

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About Cam Taylor

I'm help people live inspired, focused and tenacious lives. I work as a coach, facilitator, author, and speaker.
This entry was posted in Adversity, anxiety, Attitude, Character, Emotions, failure, Growth, Hope, learning, Optimism, Perspective, self-awareness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Toddler Mind – Failing Forward

  1. Cam, I’ve enjoyed all your blogs tremendously, but this one is exceptional. The concept of failure being a prerequisite to success is not new … but it’s not widely known or accepted. A friend of mine who worked at IBM told me how that company encourages failure by insisting employees ‘fail faster’! We all learn how to do things better by making mistakes!! You’ve done a fabulous job explaining this truism.

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