This post is part of HBR’s special issue on failure.
Several hours into the first day of our paddle down the Grand Canyon, we came to our first significant rapid of the trip, House Rock Rapid. To give you an idea, here is a 25-second YouTube video of a kayaker running the rapid.
We got out of our boats — we were 15 kayakers and three support rafts — and scouted the rapid from the right bank of the river. So far, I hadn’t been feeling myself on this trip. The water was bigger than anything I had paddled before, and now even small rapids — waves I could normally surf for fun — were rattling me. I felt uneasy, stiff, awkward, and scared.
I volunteered to go first, mostly to get it over with. While the other kayakers watched from land, I entered my kayak. My hands were shaking, and it took me a few tries to seal my sprayskirt around the cockpit.
Adrenaline coursed throughout my body as I slowly inched my way toward the rapid. I positioned myself carefully as I entered the whitewater. About thirty feet upstream from the big wave, I started to paddle hard, taking short strokes to power through it. 20 feet. Ten feet.
A wall of water that stood at least twice my height crashed, flattening me against the back of the boat. The size of the wave startled me; it was much bigger than it appeared from land.
The wave hit with such immense force that my boat flipped, not sideways, but end over end. I was instantaneously upside down, underwater. Before I could even think about doing an Eskimo roll, the current yanked me out of the cockpit and dragged me deep down. I didn’t even get a chance to take a good breath before going under. I tried to swim to the surface but I wasn’t sure which way was up.
Finally, about 50 feet downstream, the river spit me out. I gasped for air as a large bearded river guide reached for my life jacket and tugged me onto his raft.
“Welcome to the Canyon.” He laughed. I did my best to smile back as I lay on the floor of the raft, trying to catch my breath.
My pummeling was unexpected. But what happened next even more so.
When I got back into my kayak, I thought I’d be even more nervous, more hesitant, and even stiffer than before. But it was the exact opposite. I was loose, comfortable, relaxed. I did a few Eskimo rolls for the fun of it. No adrenaline. No shaking. It was a dramatic shift. My fear and uncertainty was gone. I felt refreshed.
I felt the relief of failure.
Before I was clobbered by that wave, I was terrified of being clobbered by a wave. After the clobbering, I was no longer afraid. Once I failed — and not just a misstep, but a grand, dramatic failure — I knew I could handle the other failures the river might throw at me. In fact, I didn’t just know I could handle them, I felt I could.
We often hear about visualizing success, imagining yourself in a situation saying all the right things and making all the right moves. That tactic has its place. But I want to suggest an alternative.
Try visualizing failure.
If you have a difficult conversation you need to initiate, close your eyes and imagine it going horribly wrong. Visualize yourself saying the wrong thing. In your mind, see the other person responding callously. Watch the whole thing blow up. Don’t just think about it; try to feel it. Experience the adrenaline flow. Notice your heart beating. Sense the disappointment.
Okay. Now, open your eyes and realize that you’ve been through the worst of it. Chances are, the conversation won’t go as badly as you’ve just imagined. And if it does, you’ve just experienced what you’ll feel like, and you know what? You survived. It’s only uphill from here.
That’s what makes visualizing failure so helpful for perfectionists who often have a hard time starting things. If the failure we’ve just visualized is as bad as it can get, then why not try? It lowers the bar and takes the power of failure away.
It also allows you to have a conversation with your fear of failure. Mermer Blakeslee explores this beautifully in her book A Conversation with Fear. You can’t get rid of fear and you wouldn’t want to. But engaging with your fear helps you to see it for what it really is, which is rarely as bad as you imagine.
There’s another dynamic that happens when you visualize failure: you instinctively teach yourself what not to do. What not to say. How to recover if it goes badly. How to handle yourself in the worst case without losing control.
Here’s the irony: When you visualize failure, you’re actually visualizing success. You’re watching yourself navigate, survive, and move through failure. And that’s an art that doesn’t just help you succeed; it helps you live. Failure isn’t just an annoying step on the way to success, it’s as much a part of life as success. Best to get used to it.
After getting slammed by that wave, my feeling of confidence lasted the rest of the trip. Even when we got to the hardest rapid in the canyon — Lava Falls — I went through it with ease. So much so that I pulled my boat up the bank and ran it again. This second time, a wave hit me sideways and I flipped, losing my paddle.
But I had visualized that happening and it didn’t frighten me. I stayed in my boat and reached up with my hands to the surface of the water and flipped myself back over. A hands roll. In the biggest water the canyon had to offer.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.