“Experience is the teacher of all things.” — Gaius Julius Caesar

It was a bright, sunny day what seems like an eternity ago. Back in high school, I was a sprinter in track & field. At the time, I was extremely hard-headed, stubborn, and weak-willed. These traits would often come back to bite me in the ass. As they did on that day.

This was the division final. My heart was pumping, and my mind was jumping all over the place. While I was determined to make it my day, my little inner daemon had other plans.

“Ready?” the coach asked.

I just nodded my head, and repeated in a low tone, “ready.”

Getting down into the starting blocks was always the most nerve-wracking part of the whole thing. It didn’t help that right before the start, I had to run around the other teams asking if I could borrow the equipment.

Finally, the moment came. Kneeling at the blocks, my head down, I was waiting for the gun to go off. It was the 200 meters final. While it’s not as crucial to nail the start for this distance as it is for the 100 meters, it still makes a difference.

The countdown started. 5…4…3…2…1… Pouw! The gun went off.

“Fuck!” I screamed to myself. I had fallen asleep at the start again! No matter. I managed to make up for my late liftoff, and cruised ahead of the pack.

The 200 meter race is all about the speed, but it’s also long enough that endurance starts playing a role. The technique has to be on point, but so does the pacing.

Not having a real sprinting coach at my school, my technique was never very good. I made that up with pure power. Somehow, just a few meters out of the blocks, I found myself in the lead.

We hit the turn, and then came up the home stretch. I was still the top dog. That’s when the endurance aspect started biting me. Breathing hard, my legs were turning into lead. Just a few meters to go, and it’s over!

At that point, it all went to shit. My mind suddenly gave up. Poof! In the lead, but hurting from the pain, I slowed down. Maybe 5 meters before the finish, I turned off. That’s when another guy just blew past me.

He had been behind me the entire race, but unlike me, mustered the inner strength to give it a final push. He collapsed right after the finish line, his body hitting the ground hard.

The guy then lay there, without moving, for what appeared like eternity. I managed to stay on my feet. Yet, he won. I got second place.

I don’t know why, but this moment still haunts me. It represents the mental weaknesses I possessed at the time. Often giving up when the going got tough, my mind was soft. Part of the problem was my lack of experience.

It had only been my second year of track. I hadn’t found myself in many big races before that point. And coming from a small school, we didn’t even have a big coaching staff like some of the other schools.

Excuses aside, the biggest problem was me. Life still hadn’t humbled me enough at that point. For me to take the time to stop and listen from time to time, I would have had to experience many moments where I screwed up. At the time, I knew best. And therefore, I failed spectacularly.

As the classic quote goes, “youth is wasted on the young.” Had I experienced a bit more, and learned a bit more, these mistakes could have been avoided. Had I known the things I know now, I would have made other choices.

Understand backwards, live forwards

If someone gave me a penny every time I have wished to change something about my past, I would be a rich man. Yet, despite what the movie “Back to the Future” says, there is no going back. That’s just how time works.

It was none other than the great 19th century Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who left us with a profound lesson on the nature of reality.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Soren Kierkegaard

The past is the past. While you can’t change what happened, Kierkegaard’s quote hints at something you can do. Revisit things mentally, and learn from them.

Failure allows you to grow

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” This quote, often attributed to Irish writer C.S Lewis, but probably never said by him, reminds us of one harsh truth. Life is full of mistakes.

You can’t undo the past. It’s there. It happened. For better or worse. Your mistakes will stay your mistakes. However, those mistakes also make who you are today. For many a successful person, it is these errors that actually built them up.

For you see, mistakes are only mistakes if you see them that way. Change the way you look at them, and mistakes turn into opportunities. You win or you learn. Those should be the only two options available to you.

As a classic Stoic mantra teaches us, events in themselves are not as important as the view you take of them.

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” — Epictetus

If you go back in time, and examine the most successful people of yesteryear, you will be struck by one thing. Their attitude towards the times they messed up.

This is reflected in the famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison, who apparently said he never failed. Not even once. Instead, he just found a thousand ways that don’t work!

While the exact wording of the quote can be disputed, it is based on real Edison wisdom. In a 1921 interview, when asked a question by the interviewer, the famous inventor recalled an incident that happened in his lab many years ago.

One of his associates had just finished up an experiment that didn’t go according to plan. Disgusted, he professed his utter frustration. It was all useless.

Edison, ever the optimist, tried consoling him. His colleague shouldn’t be so down on himself. It wasn’t a waste. They had indeed learned something from the experiment. The thing couldn’t be done that way.

Rather, there was a different path to follow.

“For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.” — Thomas Edison

For Edison, all these failures just added to his experience. One by one, he built upon lesson after lesson, until one day success came knocking at the door.

Experience is brutal, but it works

A few years ago, a tough physical challenge was staring down on me. One arguably much more difficult than running fast for 200 meters. I wanted to reach the summit of Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in the European Union.

There I was, second day into the climb, looking up at the peak. The first day had been grueling. Still, the final push towards the top was a whole different animal.

It’s not just the dangers lurking all around you. If you are not careful, you could fall into a crevasse, or slide off the cliff. However, what really makes climbing mountains special is the altitude.

The lack of oxygen and the low pressure make you work so much harder. Your lungs are burning, the breathing gets heavy, and your head feels like it’s about to explode. What is easy at sea level, becomes a constant struggle in the high mountains.

There were times when I wanted to quit. What is the point of all this pain? Never-ending pain. In previous times, I would have quit. In fact, in my younger days, I did quit at similar junctures.

This time was different. I just kept putting one leg in front of the other. I had been here before. I had faced similar challenges, and succeeded. My mindset was strong. This is what finally allowed me to conquer the summit, and come back down.

One of the key reasons why this time I was successful was experience. I had done things in my life. I had seen things. I figured out the importance of certain things, and the utter uselessness of others.

Learning all this had been brutal, but it got me to now. Often, people fall for imposter syndrome, where they believe they are frauds. It is experience that cures them of this. Little by little, they learn and gain their confidence. This is what experience brings: confidence.

It isn’t by chance that people in high risk jobs spend a lot of their time practicing. By doing the same little things over and over, they gain mastery. This not only allows them to do what needs to be done when the situation calls for it. It also gives them a trust in themselves. They will be able to solve the problem even when they are a bit outside their comfort zone.

Experience gives you confidence. No problem. I have been here. I can do this.

Experience is the ultimate of teachers. If you approach it right, you can really learn a lot. In order to do that though, your mindset needs a reset. You have to come to terms with your past. Accept your failures. Live in peace with them.

They are your experience, and might even be the reason for your success down the line. Keep that in mind. Social ethics professor Felix Adler probably said it best when he linked progress with experience. You need to go down many wrong paths before you find the right one.

“The condition of all progress is experience. We go wrong a thousand times before we find the right path.” — Felix Adler


An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
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