The advice to use your failures as learning experiences is sound, but often easier said than done.
I see people who are tormented by a professional or personal misstep they made years ago. In some cases, it isn’t even enough to constitute what one might call a failure, but it still plagues them.
People who are particularly competent and conscientious are especially susceptible to the indignity of perceived failure. One incident in which they perhaps did not perform as well as they could have or even in which they did nothing wrong at all but some other party believed they did, can debilitate them.
It’s a tragic phenomenon as it is precisely because they are so good at what they do that they are holding themselves back. They hold themselves to such an exacting standard that any deviation from it disproportionately weighs on them. That is to say, even the slightest mistake derails them from their potential.
But it is an insidious derailment. It’s not the kind of derailment where someone hits rock bottom and they have no choice but to face reality. This derailment holds the afflicted back without them even knowing it’s happening.
Which brings us the parable of the pack horse and the mountain goat.
A mountain goat was bounding up a sheer cliff when he encountered a pack horse cowering on a shallow ledge. The horse was loaded with packs. So much so, in fact, that the horse’s haunches quivered with fatigue, and the enormity of the baggage on her back made it nearly impossible for her to get proper footing anywhere.
“Here!” said the goat, “let me help you get rid of that load.”
“No, thank you,” the horse replied.
“But those packs are going to be your ruin.”
“No,” replied the horse. “They make me stronger.”
“Stronger for what?” asked the mountain goat.
“To carry packs,” the horse answered as the ledge began to crumble beneath her feet.
“Yes, but I don’t think you need to actually carry those packs,” the goat tried to explain.
“Of course I do. I’m a pack horse. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. I am meant to carry this load.”
“But I have great news for you,” the goat continued. “You needn’t carry a load because everything you need is at the top of this mountain. An endless field of grasses. Fresh spring water. Shelter from the rain. Sun to keep you warm. It’s rather nicer than this bit of ledge you cling to. What is it that you carry in these packs anyway?”
“They are filled with each stone that I have stumbled and tripped on along the way,” answered the horse.
“Why would you do this to yourself?” asked the goat.
“To remind myself of the err of my ways so that I will avoid making them again.”
“Well, you must hardly ever make mistakes by now.”
“On the contrary,” said the horse, “I seem to be tripping at an ever increasing rate.”
“Perhaps if you were to just lessen the weight a bit,” suggested the mountain goat. “Just look how I move about this cliff.” The goat deftly pranced from ledge to ledge. “I am cautious, but unburdened. I can be at the top of this mountain as quickly as I like.”
“The load makes me stronger,” the horse insisted as one of her rear legs surrendered leaving her to balance precariously on three legs as the ledge crumbled more.
“Quickly!” shouted the mountain goat. “Let me take the packs. Just long enough for you to get off that ledge. I will return them to you as soon as you find safe footing.”
“It doesn’t seem right. This load I carry is the toll I pay for not being good enough. It would be unjust for me to let it go for even a moment.” Beneath the horse’s front hoof the ledge broke away leaving her to teeter on just two legs. The weight from the pack was too much and no matter how much she tried to lean in the packs pulled her out over the ledge.
“Enough!” said the goat, and he quickly leapt above the horse and undid her packs with his teeth. Then, using his horns, he threw the packs one by one to a sturdy ledge just below. “Jump!” shouted the goat.
And in a nick of time the pack horse jumped to safety as the ledge turned to rubble.
Beside her packs, the pack horse stood panting and her heart raced. Far above her, the mountain goat let out a sigh of relief.
“Oh my,” said the horse.
“What is it?”
“I feel as if I can fly. I feel…”
“Yes?” encouraged the mountain goat.
“I feel,” continued the horse, “as if I could do great things.” The horse reared up on her hind legs and shook out her mane. She filled her lungs with fresh air and whinnied loudly.
“I believe you can,” said the goat.
“Now then,” said the horse. “Would you be kind enough to help replace my load?”
The goat stared back in disbelief. He considered his response for a moment then said, “Certainly. But first I will need you to repay your debt. I have saved your life after all.”
“Of course,” replied the horse. “How rude of me. What can I do for you?”
“At the top of this mountain I have made a home for my family inside a warm cave. I will need your help gathering food to store inside the cave.”
“Very well,” said the horse. “Lead the way.”
The mountain goat bounded off up the cliff’s face and the horse followed sure-footed and confident.
As she reached the mountaintop she was in awe of its beauty. Green grass and forrest stretched as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance a spring ran from a split boulder. The goat lead her to his cave where his family greeted them.
For several days the horse gathered wood, grass, and water and stored it inside the cave. Every evening the horse ate with the family of goats, laughed, told stories, and fell into a deep, blissful sleep. In the morning, she awoke pleasantly sore, hungry, and eager to do more.
Finally, when the job was done, the mountain goat said to the pack horse, “Now then, a deal’s a deal. Shall I help you load those blasted packs back upon your back?”
“What packs?” asked the horse.