How to Turn Failure into a Learning Opportunity: The Story of Danny MacAskill

Danny MacAskill climbing a rock face with his bike over his shoulder
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“One more,” said little Danny to his Dad, Peter, his knees bloodied and a bump rising on his forehead.

This kid was determined. He wanted to ace the dangerous move on his new bike before supper time.

Danny’s parents bought him a rusty old second-hand Raleigh bike for his fifth birthday, and he spent hours practicing in the garden. He fell countless times, scraped his knees, and bloodied his nose, but he never gave up.

Each time he fell, Danny would pick himself back up, brush off the dirt, and try again. Every time he fell, he learned. Foot in the wrong place on that one; try again. Body weight is off balance; try again. Not braking hard enough; try again.

Danny was not afraid of failing.

In many ways, Danny is not like you and me. You see, mistakes for Danny hurt. A lot. But they’re also the source of his greatest achievements.

Little Danny MacAskill from a farm in Glasgow would become a professional street trials rider and YouTube sensation with 39 million views on this 2009 video.

If you skipped over the video I want to nudge you watch it. Not only does Danny’s mastery make it all look like magic, but it’s a helluva fun five minutes.

The video also perfectly captures how his hard work and embrace of mistakes paid off. 

Danny’s love of biking continued to grow. He rode his bike everywhere, exploring new paths (figuratively and literally) and challenging himself to become a better street rider. His passion saw him attract sponsorship, become an ambassador for Red Bull, and quit his job as a cycle mechanic in Edinburgh to turn his talent into a profession. 

His willingness to see failure as a learning opportunity rather than a setback helped him reach his goal. But we don’t all start out like that. Why not?

Why are we afraid of failure and mistakes?

It’s all rooted in fear. Here are some examples: 

  • Fear of disappointment: People may fear failure because they don’t want to disappoint themselves or others, such as their parents, friends, or teachers.
  • Fear of shame: People may be afraid of making mistakes because they don’t want to feel ashamed or embarrassed.
  • Fear of rejection: People may fear failure because they don’t want to be rejected or judged by others.
  • Fear of the unknown: People may be afraid of making mistakes because they don’t know the consequences or how to recover from the failure.
  • Fear of change: People may fear failure because they are comfortable with the status quo and fear change.

These fears shouldn’t be viewed as obstacles to overcome, however. They should be viewed as realities to learn to live with. As the psychologist and author Susan David insightfully put it, courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.

Danny MacAskill learned that even failure with broken bones is nothing to fear.

Danny MacAskill showing no fear and turning his failures into learning opportunities
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Photo courtesy Lezynne website where Danny is an ambassador

“Yeah, I’ve had loads of annoying little injuries, but bones heal, and unless they heal funny or you break them right in the joint, if it’s a nice clean break, you’re back on the bike in six to eight weeks,” he told a journalist.

With this mindset, he accelerated his learning curve early, like Thomas Edison. Edison is well known for his persistence and determination in the face of failure, famously saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

But what, precisely, did MacAskill and Edison stumble upon? What about adopting this kind of growth mindset made them so successful?

The benefits of viewing failure as a learning opportunity

There are several:

  • Increased resilience: When you view failure as a learning opportunity, you are more likely to bounce back from setbacks and continue working towards your goals. In entrepreneurs, for example, failure can lead to a range of higher-level learning outcomes that are future-oriented and increase the entrepreneur’s level of preparedness.
  • Improved problem-solving skills: By seeing failure as a chance to learn, you can develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help you overcome future challenges.
  • Greater creativity: When you are open to the possibility of failure, you may be more likely to take risks and try new things, leading to greater creativity and innovation.
  • Enhanced self-awareness: Seeing failure as a learning opportunity allows you to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, helping you become more self-aware and grow.
  • Greater success: Ultimately, adopting a growth mindset and viewing failure as a learning opportunity can lead to tremendous success in your personal and professional life.

Albert Einstein and Oprah Winfrey knew these things too. 

The theory of relativity
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Einstein struggled in school. His teachers told him he would never amount to anything. However, he persevered and eventually became one of history’s most famous and influential scientists.

Oprah Winfrey smiling
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Oprah faced numerous challenges and failures throughout her life, but she always saw them as opportunities to learn and grow. She said, “The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”

So how can we use failure as a learning tool as individuals and leaders of teams? Before we can chart that path, we must be aware of the obstacles we might face. 

Pitfalls to avoid in living the life of your dreams

You may well agree that viewing failure as a learning opportunity can be beneficial, but there are a few pitfalls to be aware of in consistently acting this out:

  • Over-focusing on failure: It’s essential to recognize that failure is a natural and inevitable part of life, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Don’t let a fear of failure keep you from pursuing your goals, or let it consume your thoughts and energy.
  • Blaming others: Seeing failure as a learning opportunity means avoiding blaming others for your failures. Be honest about your role in the failure and try to learn from it. Ultimately, that’s all you can control.
  • Becoming too self-critical: While being honest about your mistakes is important, so is being kind to yourself. Don’t let a focus on learning from failure become harsh self-criticism or a tendency to beat yourself up over every mistake.
  • Not seeking help: Seeing failure as a learning opportunity doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. It’s okay to ask for help or guidance when needed. Don’t be afraid to seek resources or advice from others when you are struggling. If you ask, you’ll be surprised how willing people are to help.

Think of these like guardrails to allow full freedom of expression. With these four factors in mind, we can safely fasten our chin strap, lean into the bike, and descend down the hill.

It’s time for the part a few of you may have already scrolled down to see.

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How do we cultivate a mindset that turns failure into learning opportunities?

Paying closer attention to Danny’s story reveals a few steps you can follow to cultivate a growth mindset:

Reflect on your thoughts and beliefs

Do you see them as setbacks or opportunities to learn and grow? What are you looking to learn? What are you passionate about? 

Danny MacAskill recorded that 2009 video because he thought it was cool. He didn’t care what others thought. 

“I made it for myself, to be honest, and really wanted to do the best I could. I didn’t really care so much what everybody else thought, although I was happy the trials scene might see it and maybe think it was cool. But I never expected it to go mainstream like it did. It happened in a big way for me, and just kind of all came together.”

Danny MacAskill reflecting on turning failure into learning opportunities
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Photo courtesy of ISPO.com

Practice self-compassion

Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes or face failure. Remember that everyone makes mistakes and that failure is a natural part of learning and growing.

MacAskill could keep doing what he did in that 2009 video because it was fun. 

“It’s still fun for me, when I go out riding my bike in the street, the same as when I was a teenager, that same kind of feeling, for sure. That’s why I try not to call it training ‘cos that changes it into something different. I enjoy just the playing about and doing skids and wheelies.”

Practice effort

Focus on effort and working hard rather than achieving a particular outcome. 

But don’t let the fun fool you. It’s hard work.

“Things start to look a little bit easy if you don’t see the full effort that goes into it. It can take four to six days to land a trick, for just six seconds of film. You’re trying hundreds of times, trying to jump on a hay bale that’s rolling down a hill or slide along the top of a log that’s all greasy. It takes time.”

Seek out challenges 

Embrace challenges, and don’t be afraid to try new things, even if you might fail initially. This mindset will help you become more comfortable with failure as a learning opportunity.

Danny MacAskill performing a crazy stunt on his bike.
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Photo courtesy of West Highland Free Press

Learn from your mistakes

When you make a mistake, take some time to reflect on what you can learn from the experience. What went wrong? What could you do differently next time? How can you apply this learning to future challenges?

Doing this allowed Danny to develop his unique style, arguably one of the keys to success in any field. 

“Because I grew up on Skye I rode by myself a lot when I was young and developed more unusual skills rather than copying other people. The first video was that style of riding, except I pushed myself to do things I wasn’t sure were possible.”

Seek feedback and support

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and support when needed. Ask from a position of absolute helplessness. This vulnerability can help you learn and grow, and it can also help you feel more connected to others.

Making mistakes is part of life, but how we learn and grow from them matters. Mistakes can be opportunities to gain knowledge, show resilience, and build strength of character. By developing a positive outlook on mistakes and taking a proactive approach to learning from them, we can approach new challenges confidently, knowing that we will be better prepared to tackle them.

If you’re the manager of a team or in charge of enabling others, you can build into a learning program by deploying Cohort Learning Experiences. CLXs ensure that everyone on your team can cultivate this mindset. It won’t happen in a day, but if you are driven by purpose, the right people will connect with passion.

And with that, the final word must go to Danny:

Dann MacAskill smiling
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Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Bicycles

“Have fun and persevere because you won’t learn something in a day. Do it because you love it, because you enjoy it, just do it for yourself. I never really dreamt this was something I’d be doing. I just loved riding my bike for fun.”

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