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Crucial difference between daring to fail and fatal mistakes


I have long been an advocate of calculated risks, of daring greatly, and, in the words of John Maxwell, failing forward. Especially for young people, and people who are not responsible for others, sometimes the very best teacher is trying something different and spectacular, and failing. In fact, my friend Jay and I devoted a good part of our book (shameless plug: Get It! available at Amazon.com) to pointing out all of the people who were spectacular failures in life, from Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Edison to Albert Einstein … until they weren’t. Until the lessons from all of those failures came together to make them spectacular successes.

But, every once in a while, it is necessary to point out — especially to young people — that there is a vast world of difference between a calculated risk and a failure, and a dumb mistake.

Yeah, maybe doing a few dumb things, pushing the limits of what is safe and/or legal helps you learn about yourself, your limits, and stupid things like gravity. But, more often than not, those things lead to hospital stays, the kinds of things that will cost you a job in our new social media world, and other, even worse consequences.

Taking the time and making the investment to learn how to parasail is a risk, and puts you in some thrilling danger. Base jumping off a 10-story building without any training on proper parachute technique is foolish, and qualifies you for a Darwin Award.

Mountain biking is exciting, great exercise, and, I have found, sometimes very painful. Mountain biking without a helmet is reckless, unnecessary, and potentially life-altering.

Talking to the pretty girl at the party is scary, and potentially embarrassing, though not particularly dangerous. Ignoring the rights of a woman to decide for herself the limits of her, shall we say, social interactions, is rude, Neanderthal, and criminal.

Driving a fast car down a quarter mile track, in controlled conditions, with all the right safety equipment, is exhilarating and awesome, even if there is some risk involved. Driving a car too fast down your average civic thoroughfare is dangerous and stupid.

And getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking too much is begging for unimaginable consequences. As we’ve seen lately here in Arvada, where a seven-car accident recently claimed four lives.

I never pretend to know what is going through people’s minds when they do something criminally reckless. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt—allow for money troubles, or maybe they just received bad news, or, perhaps, they’re dealing with something like horrible chronic pain or health issues.

But, none of those are an excuse for doing something that has, not just the potential for, but the built-in expectation of a tragic outcome for people who are completely independent of the situation. You want to drink away your pain? Fine. Do it from the safety of your own back yard. Don’t endanger the rest of society so you can re-discover your mellow.

But, I also think it’s important to remember that there are victims of incidents like these that have nothing to do with the incident itself. My heart goes out to the families of the victims, and to the family of the man who caused the accident. The wife, the children, their lives are now thrown  into a blender through no cause of theirs, and the repercussions of one stupid decision will reverberate through generations.

Young people, if there is one lesson you should make every effort to learn early, it is to avoid making the dumb mistake that forever eliminates your ability to make any other choices. Take risks, fail boldly — but don’t trade in your future for a momentary jolt of whatever.  There are some mistakes you can’t come back from.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com


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