Stumbling is Humbling

In October of 2018 we made a big decision to purchase a new home. We did this after enjoying owning our prior home for 13 years. The new home is quite close by to the old one and we did not initially sell the old house. This allowed us to take our time and chip away at the transition. We were managing moving a few things here and a few things there on our own. One day after having picked up two of my sons from school, we sought to take a truck load of stuff to the new house. My wife was unloading a few boxes of things in the kitchen while two of my sons and I ported a few things from the truck to their respective new rooms. I had just taken a small entertainment unit down to the basement. My next load was a bedside table in which I had left the two drawers loaded with my middle son’s stuff. It was reasonably heavy and a bit awkward as I hugged it more than carried it. I had counted the stairs in the new house and was able to easily recall these as it matched the number of stairs from the basement to our main level in our old house. The stairs had two sets comprised of seven and eight steps separated by a landing.

Unfortunately, I neglected to consider that the landing between the two flights of stairs itself had a step built into it. I made it down the first set of stairs, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. I was pivoting on the landing and preparing for the final eight when my sense of balance was severely jarred by missing the step on the landing. I started to tumble a bit forward. Teetering in thought, I made the profoundly poor decision to “send it”. I somehow figured I could save the effort. I didn’t want to fall into the wall in front of me so tried to jump and skip a number of stairs with hopes that I could throw my feet forward to get ahead of my body and get rebalanced.

It was a full fail. My effort was more of a dive than anything. I continued to fall forward with the weight of the bedside table helping lead my upper body ahead of my legs. My feet continued to fall further behind and rolled off a step somewhere along the way. In this process I hurt my left ankle. As I sailed gracelessly at gravity’s mercy, I accepted impact as inevitable and ditched the table away from me. Smacking the slate tile floor suspended like Superman, or more like Patrick the Starfish from Sponge Bob, I made a violent three point impact. With a splat, I was flat, and that was that. My forehead and both knee caps bore the brunt of it.

Conscious throughout, my first thought after hitting the floor was wow, that is a loud ring reverberating around my skull. I lifted my head up ever so slightly to see a steady stream of ruby red blood pouring down. I didn’t connect that it was above my eyes and thought, my nose, I’ve destroyed my nose. I reached for my nose and didn’t feel any pain or blood coming from there. I then thought, oh no, my teeth, I’ve damaged teeth, this could be expensive. I felt around my mouth and didn’t feel any pain or blood coming from here. I then figured that the gash was from my forehead and as the blood leaked out I felt more pain flow into multiple parts of my body, especially my knees. I figured I needed to roll over to my back to try to slow down the blood flow from my forehead. I was able to gingerly make this transition. I tried to put some pressure on where I thought the blood was coming from. My middle son came to me first and saw that I had an issue. He brought me a roll of toilet paper which I used to try to cover my bleeding forehead. He also then began to clean up the mess and let me gather myself. At some point, my wife and youngest came down to see what the hullaballoo was all about. My family did a great job of helping me out. They attended to me with quick care.

We had purchased the bedside table as part of a bedroom furniture set from a friend just after we were married. It had been in our possession for almost 21 years. This almost antique item incurred minimal damage. There’s a slight dent in a corner of it. Since I’ve subsequently inspected my landing area multiple times, I can affirm there is no evidence of my impact. It is like my time here on earth to date. There’s no doubt that when I fought the floor, the floor won. Stumbling absolutely is humbling. The durability of inanimate objects like the bedside table and granite tile is far superior to that of this meagre mortal. Though the impact to the floor was inconsequential, I ended up with a forehead gash requiring over 20 stitches and left me looking like an NHL enforcer that had been on the losing end of an encounter. I also fractured a bone in a foot, sprained an ankle, and broke a knee cap all on the same leg. Pyschotherapist, Carl Jung, said: “Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.” Yes, I quickly learned stumbling is humbling, but could it be helpful? What lessons did I learn from my fall?

As I interacted with others, I shared the story of my stumble. It turns out almost everyone I talked to had a story to share about someone they knew that had suffered from a fall. One friend mentioned a client that had recently fallen down some stairs and broken his neck. Another contact mentioned a colleague of theirs hosting a party where a guest, too, fell down some stairs and died. I was also informed that falls were a cause of death that ranked right up there with car accidents. These stories connected to remind me of an observation Will Bowen writes about in his book A Complaint Free World, “Complaints always run in one direction—toward a more dire experience.” No matter what we think our problem is, someone else has it worse. A great Monty Python sketch called The Four Yorkshiremen captures this tendency. We seem happy to compete to somehow prove our experiences or circumstances are harder than those of others.

Two related takeaways to the stories I heard were that everyone stumbles. Everybody falls. Everybody suffers from something. There’s nothing unique or special about our struggles. Moreover, no matter what challenges we’re facing, someone else is facing something much harder. Even in our own times of misery we can take comfort knowing whatever we’re experiencing is a shared experience of others. Additionally, no matter what we’re facing, maybe there is an opportunity for an ounce of gratitude. It could be worse is always true.

Moving forward, my recovery was a slow go. I was instructed to keep weight off the impacted leg for eight weeks. This wasn’t a problem for quite a while as pain motivated me to stay off the hurt leg. As I began to become more mobile, pain remained a constant reminder. Whether consciously or unconsciously I realized that any extra weight hurt. The pain limited appetite. When we hurt, eating isn’t as appealing. If the weight wasn’t essential, I didn’t want it. I focused on eating better. Slowly, with each day I was able to put weight on the damaged leg and begin to move more. I could walk with the cast on the main level of our home. I progressed from one lap to several laps. I began to do some upper body exercises. I learned that pain wasn’t something to blame. It is informative. It instructs us as to what matters. Over the course of a four to six month recovery, I lost twenty pounds and ended up fitter than I was before the accident. I didn’t need a trainer or fancy nutritional consultant to spur change. Simply the realization that weight hurt. If poundage on my body wasn’t adding some value, I didn’t want it. Reducing non-essential weight became a natural extension of the pain. Eat less, eat better, move more as I could.

Jonah Berger in his book, The Catalyst, writes, “Recovery may paradoxically be faster from severer injuries than mild ones because of how people respond when those injuries occur. When a severe injury occurs, people take active steps to speed recovery. They consult physicians, undergo surgeries, and take medicines.” With smaller ailments, we tend not to gather as many resources. Consider the steps we are likely to take when we have a headache versus feeling like we may have a heart attack. If a headache, we’re likely to do little if anything. Perhaps, pop an aspirin, take a nap, or just push on through. Whereas, if we think we’re having a heart attack, we’re popping some aspirin and dashing to the emergency room. We’re much more motivated to act. Berger writes, “When the status quo is terrible, it’s easy to get people to switch. They’re willing to change because inertia isn’t a viable option.” As a result, “Terrible things get replaced, but mediocre things stick around.”

The discomfort I experienced spurred a search for help and a willingness to act. My experience served as a reminder that all change is hard: personal and business. Just like developing a bias for action implies amping up our sense of urgency, change can be stimulated by pain and discomfort. We’re more motivated to move away from sharp pain than we are towards a small gain. Berger writes, “Whenever people think about changing, they compare things to their current state. The status quo. And if the potential gains barely outweigh the potential losses, they don’t budge.” Our circumstances need to deteriorate before we are able to see the need for change. Before my fall, I wasn’t worried about losing weight. I thought I was healthy enough. We cling to our comforts and status quo. When things are ok, we don’t want to make waves. Yet, with the pain of the inflicted injuries, I learned there was a lot I could do to improve. When it hurts, things aren’t hopeless. The hurt helps. It captures our attention and inspires action. Acute injuries are those that are severe enough that we seek medical attention right away. Acute issues are those in our business that imply immediate action. When we’re hit with a flood or a power outage, doing nothing isn’t an option. We must act to adapt. Chronic problems remain chronic because the pain isn’t severe enough to drive our attention to solve it. We and our businesses become like the proverbial boiling frog. The temperature rises around us while we do nothing. Unfortunately, doing nothing often seems safer than doing something which involves change and uncertainty. The unknown seems more painful than the present. A great catalyst for change is pain in the present. We must suffer before we seek another approach.

As the folk at Admired Leadership have noted, “In the hurt lies the help.” Or, in the lyrics from a Rise Against song, “Every road to recovery starts at the breakdown.” Stumbling isn’t just humbling, it’s helpful. More so, where we share the learning of our experience with others. Where leaders can do this, the value of learning can be built within their organization. Mistakes matter.