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On hitting the wall

Last time I was talking about failures and defeat: how we shouldn't confuse the two. That thought is still on my mind because a very clever, extremely motivated, generally brilliant, friend of mine has just failed an exam, and is not feeling the way most people feel when they fail an exam. They are devastated. At a complete loss. Confused and angry as well as (as we would all be) disappointed. He has never failed an exam before. It has come has something of a shock.

The kind of shock you get when you round a corner at full speed, a corner you have rounded many times before and end up full-pelt into a brick (or even a stone) wall!


It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes from Professor Randolph Pausch.

For a professor of computer science the late Randy Pausch knew an awful lot about people. Maybe that's what made him so good at the tech stuff: understanding the interface, realising that the tech only works if the people function properly. And knowing that often we don't. I haven't read "The Last Lecture", his response to knowing he didn't have much time left but I know that I will. In the meantime, I'm thinking about one tiny snippet of wisdom from that piece of work that keeps coming back to me.

Pausch said: "The brick walls are there for a reason. They're not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people."

So what to do when you've hit the brick wall?

Sit down and hurt for a while, would be my first advice. Unless this is an army assault course, and the person controlling your immediate future is standing at the end with a clipboard and a stopwatch, I'd say: just stop. Say "ouch" in the most technicolour language you can construct.


Go on. Get it out.

Then, sit for a while longer and stop hurting. Start thinking about the wall. That edifice that you have just slammed head-first into. Look at it. Close up. Take a step back – lots of steps back – and look at it from there.

Recognise that it is 'just a wall'. And maybe you ran into it because you weren't looking where you were going. Maybe you could have avoided the collision if you'd been paying proper attention, if you'd had contingency plans, if, if, if, if…..

If none of those ifs help now that you have run into the wall: file them away for later. Don't disregard them, because once you've got to the other side of this particular beauty, you're going to take them out and look at them and think about whether they teach you anything about avoiding the next wall…which might be a fence…or a force-field…or a viper-pit…or a deep dark moat with monsters patrolling the depths. They are all, really, just other forms of brick wall. You've read the fairy tales or played the computer games, you know how it goes. The heroine's life is a quest, and she has to get past the stuff thrown in her way.

I'm not sure I remember the one where the heroine just went home early.

To be fair, I believe that that is also a choice. You can choose to be one of Pausch's other people, the ones who don't want it badly enough.

In fact, on some days you should be. Don't waste your powers fighting for something you don't want. So maybe between the bit where you're sitting and hurting and the bit where you're sitting and thinking about what to do about the wall, there needs to be a bit where you sit and think about what's on the other side of it…why you were headed that way in the first place. Just to be sure.

Lots of times in my life I have stumbled into the "what's-the-point" pit. These slimy hollows, which have a tendency to lurk around the brick-wall fall-out zones, drag you down to where there's no purpose in what you're trying to do, or you're not strong enough, clever enough, educated enough, rich enough, attractive enough, 'enough' enough to do it. I'm told that a good wallow in the mud is good for the skin, I don't know about that, but I can vouchsafe that the cold ooze of the what's-the-point pit is not good for the soul. Scramble out of that one quick. If you can't quickly find the point – and leap out in a single bound – then clamber out slowly any way and recognise this isn't your wall. Go home and have a hot bath instead.

But if you've grasped the point, got back on your feet, and the brick wall is in your way, if it is between you and your goal and your goal matters, then start by realising it is just a wall. It has been constructed – ergo it can be deconstructed. Your job is to figure out how.

It is a wall; it doesn't reach all the way to the outer atmosphere. It can be scaled. Your job is to figure out how.

It is a wall; it sits on foundations but they don't reach all the way down to the earth's molten core; it can be tunnelled under. Your job is to figure out how.

It is a wall, who knows it might have doors or windows in it, which can be opened. Your job is to find them and to figure out how.

It is a wall; it may have a beginning or an end that can be got around. Your job is to see whether or not that might be possible, and figure out how.

It is not the end of the world, or the end of the dream. At the end of the day: it is just a wall.

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