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Learning from Failure: Strength from Weakness

By Steve Lewis

Our attitude towards failure can have a large effect on how we progress as divers. Photo: Russell Clark

Nobody likes to screw up. None of us start marching along a pathway to a personal goal with the intention of losing our way and falling short—failing. Failing has the potential to ruin your day, or, at the other end of the spectrum of possible consequences, it has the potential to change your life forever. Secondly, failing at something you’ve set your mind on, usually points out—sometimes very graphically and with huge, powerful floodlights making it supremely obvious—that we’re fallible, human, normal like everyone else. That can be an embarrassing buzz-kill. However, sooner or later, we all do it. Embarrassing, life-changing, or something in-between, everyone has a “moment”.

What fascinates me is how differently people react to these little doses of reality: their failures. Watching how a buddy or a colleague, or even a celebrity or politician, takes ownership—or not—and how they digest the lessons on offer from these events is instructive. We can learn a lot about them, and ourselves, come to that.

Now’s the time when I could launch into a long list of my screw-ups. In the water on dives, on the surface before and after dives, and more generally just being. However, it’s better we talk about you. Well, less embarrassing at least.

A Dose of Reality

Let’s assume that at some point in the next 12 months, you’re going to go diving. A safe assumption, yes? A percentage of you might even have some variety of scuba “lessons” planned. That’s great. And a few of you might even be thinking about making the awesome and abundantly scary jump into the pool populated by “the dive industry pros”: divemasters, open-water instructors, technical instructors, and so on.

And during that process, a few of you are going to fail. 

Sorry, but there it is: reality.

Someone once said, “If failure isn’t an option, you’re not taking enough chances.” It was probably the same person who said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again!” But it’s unlikely it was the wag who designed a prized T-shirt in the wardrobe upstairs, which is emblazoned across the front with, “If at first you don’t succeed, Cave Diving probably isn’t for you…”

Whatever the case, if you try something and fail—especially in this diving game—take heart. It’s guaranteed that all the “experts” and role-models and exceptional examples of underwater prowess that you read about in magazines such as this one, have a string of failures behind them.

The difference between them and the not-so-prestigious is partly luck. They survived. Of course another difference is they took ownership of their faux-pas and learned from those mistakes.

As an aside, if you get a chance, listen to any and all presentations you can, where these men and women share their stories. As you do so, and take note when they recall their “come to Jesus” moments, times during their adventures that things got decidedly dodgy. There will be one at least.

It Could be Worse

Fortunately, most failures in diving come closer to losing face or being embarrassed than facing a life-threatening situation. Not being able to find the wreck rather than running out of gas, for instance. Or they are the little failures and mis-steps that we try to overlook. Jumping off the boat with no fins on, forgetting to wear your dive computer, or connect your drysuit inflator, and missing it during your pre-dive checks.

Some of these are—upon reflection—funny and the sort of thing your buddies remind you of over a pint. These are all failures of a sort, and all potential life lessons—mostly solved by using a checklist </off soapbox> 

However, some of the most critical failures and most dramatic “lessons for diving” can happen long before we kit up for a dive. Take as an example, not passing a scuba-diving class. Let’s say being a candidate to become a technical instructor and not making the grade. “Surely,” you might be thinking to yourself, “People signed up for this don’t fail!”

Well, they do.

As an instructor-trainer when this happens, when you have to tell someone who has their heart set on becoming an instructor, you do a little soul-searching. You ask yourself if you did a good job of defining expectations. Did you give them enough coaching? Did you give them a chance to correct whatever it was that accounted for them not earning a pass? You think of the most productive way to break the news to them: diplomatically or frank and bare-bones.

The reactions are far from typical. There is no “normal” in this situation and although you hope for everyone’s sake for the perfect reaction—a professional debrief, honesty, ownership, and a good feeling all round that at the next attempt will turn out differently. 

In most cases, the outcome follows something close to this. But in rare cases, there will be ego, hurt pride, lack of ownership, and over-confidence at play. (Exactly the same general factors that push open-water divers to swim into caves or semi-regular divers to see how deep they can get on a single aluminum 80.) 

A couple of my buddies admit to having similar experiences when they have broken the bad news to a student instructor. We have all been threatened physically, threatened legally, personally insulted, libelled, slandered, and been told we are washed up (that last one was all mine….I am apparently well passed my due date). It comes with the territory when you work at a level where certification is not guaranteed by payment. Certs are earned, not bought…or should not be.

Opportunity Knocks

Hopefully, you have your head screwed on properly and if you muck things up at some point in the near future and “fail” at something dive-related, you’ll see that setback as an opportunity, and grab it with both hands. Sure, failing on a dive course comes as a disappointment, but it may also make you a better candidate for next time you try. Cave diving is a perfect example. Candidates for any level of cave certification “fail” all the time. Some agencies even have a special cert for students who fail their full cave program; there are other technical certs we call provisional passes that in truth signify the diver wasn’t up to grade but made a good effort and should definitely try again after a little more practice.

So what’s the message? None of us is as good as we think we are, and diving isn’t a right. We can’t buy our way to success. Safety and personal security is not a line item on our credit card statement. If we fail, we need to work harder. In diving that usually means two things—think differently, practice more. 

Steve Lewis is a technical instructor, cave IT, and coach. His latest book Death in Number Two Shaft is available on Amazon or, for signed copies, from the author at

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