A Perilous Fall
I was crawling in mid-air.
No, I wasn’t dreaming - I was literally suspended in mid-air. To my left was a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea along the southwestern France coastline. To my right was a beautiful old French castle that withstood the test of time.
And five stories immediately below me - nothing but large jagged ocean rocks.
This was the last thing I had expected from a two-day “team building” trip to the Saint Cyr military academy with my MBA classmates. It was during the last few weeks of our first year together at HEC Paris School of Management, in 2010.
My experience at St. Cyr started off fairly “normally”.
The first day saw us handle team-building exercise in nature. There was one to build a ford to cross a dam. There was another to build a set of ropes to cross a swamp in the forest. There was another to build a tent for the entire team, or to construct a hammock for an “injured” teammate.
First day was all building, building, and more building.
The 2nd day was where the real “fun” (and pain) began. We woke up nice and early - dressed in our camouflage suit and pants - and were whisked away to a beautiful mountain retreat right next to the sea.
And as I stared out my window seat of the bus while we drove to the intended destination, I saw a great big old castle rise forth in the distance. That was where we were going!
Again, upon arrival, we split into teams, but this time the challenges required more physicality and mental fortitude. The very first challenge we went thru was quite a “doozie”.
We had to crawl on top of a silver cylindrical beam on all fours, hugging closely to the beam as we moved forth across the entire five or so meters. The beam itself was around one meter in diameter.
One misstep and we would plunge into the swampy waters below. Though it was only perhaps a two meter drop at most.
Our instructions by Xavier, our drill instructor, were basic. We need to maintain our balance and posture, while closely hugging the beam, and crawling our way forward - from start to finish - like a caterpillar.
My turn came, and I followed Xavier’s instructions, crawling confidently and steadily along the huge circular steel pole. I was literally hugging the pole like a contestant on the American Gladiator.
It didn’t seem too hard - at first. Again, the entire pole from start to finish was only maybe five meters.
But then, midway thru this challenge, I lost my balance and my lower body began to drift downwards. And I thought to myself “uh oh”. Before I knew it, I was hanging on to the pole, but now upside down - with “holy beep what do I do” running through my mind.
I saw some of my teammates urging me on from the other side of the challenge.
I tried to block out the searing pain that gradually built up in my arms. And I slowly inched my way like a tortured koala bear to the other side - accepting the growing pain. Embracing it all.
3 meters. 2 meters. 1 more! Until I reached the end of that pole - barely hanging by a thread and still upside down - and my teammates dragged me back up to safety. Success!
But then, the afternoon came. Our second challenge of that afternoon was to scale a three-story high helicopter ladder. You know, those flimsy looking ones that blow whichever way the wind goes.
Similarly, Xavier, showed us the correct method and posture. One foot on the outside of the ladder, the other foot on the inside, and similarly with each hand - to maintain balance.
At that point, I was already physically drained from all the other activities we went thru earlier in the day - rock climbing, crawling thru dark cramped sewers, scaling walls, jumping down fireman poles. But, I still thought, why not give it a shot?
So, I followed Mr. Xavier’s instructions, went up slowly until perhaps I was two stories up (with one more story to go). That familiar searing pain in my muscles returned promptly, and I stung from head to toe. Exhaustion set in.
My mind wanted to go on, but my body just wouldn’t comply. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, two stories high up in the air - trapped on a flimsy helicopter ladder - unable to move another muscle in my body.
I looked down to the ground below, and some of my teammates were yelling “Come on Calvin, you can do it!”. Don’t give up!
But, my muscles were completely numb - in my forearms, in my lower body, in my core, everywhere. And at that point, I just let go.
I let go of that helicopter ladder, and just hung upside down - in the middle of the air - in full blown I-don’t-give-a-you-know-what mode. Only the harness and the rope - being pulled by my teammate - separated me from an unforgiving and perilous fall.
I looked like a dead fish floating in the sky. And some people down below looked away in shame. I heard someone mutter “oh he’s useless”. Another laughed hysterically at my awkward looking posture in mid-air.
And finally, my teammate holding the rope slowly - mercifully - lowered me down to the floor.
As I took off the harness and got back on my feet, I overheard Xavier talking with another instructor about race cars and randomly asked me in his thick French accident “eh Calvin how do you see that light in the front of the car?” And I said headlights.
I think he was trying to discreetly re-build my confidence. To remind me that I am a native English speaker. I have skills that are “better” than others. Anyway, that’s the story I tell in my head. And I appreciated his intentions.
And before I could even process what just happened, we moved immediately on to the next challenge.
There were two parallel ropes strung across from one end of the castle to the other. And there was one rope above with a secure safety harness. Basically, we had to get from one side to the other.
Before the challenge even began, one of my teammates - having seen the 100 meter drop down to the jagged rocks below - just bowed out of the challenge. But, I said to myself, why not give it a shot? What do I have to lose at this point?
And similarly before starting, Xavier showed us the ropes - both literally and figuratively - on how to proceed.
You need to get on all fours, your knees in the front and your feet in the back. Your knees should straddle the outside of the two ropes, while your feet gently hug the bottom of those two ropes from the inner side. Both hands out front to grip the rope strongly. And slowly move your way forward.
So again, I followed the instructions. Slowly. Hand-by-hand. Knee-by-knee. Foot-by-foot. I wasn’t too scared about falling down to the jagged rocks below. I trusted my instructions. I trusted my body. And I trusted that everything would fall into place the way it should.
And I crawled my way from one side to the other - while peaking a couple of looks to my left at the beautiful Mediterranean Sea - so peaceful, so blue, so limitless.
And at this point, I thought to myself, what a BEAUTIFUL experience this is. Slowly but surely, I made my way across the rope safe and sound.
After successfully completing a few more challenges - like another tight rope walk, rappelling, and a zip line from the top of the castle to the sandy beaches below - we finally finished that day.
There were bruised legs, bruised arms, and bruised egos for all. And we were brought back to our canteen for a well-deserved BBQ dinner.
I’d say my overall experience at the St. Cyr academy taught me the importance of teamwork, failure, support, and kindness.
It taught me that we can all conquer our perceived challenges. And that to conquer them, it is good to have an effective plan in place. Whether it is knowing the proper form to scale a tight rope, or the proper resources to start a business.
Of course, a plan doesn’t guarantee success. And sometimes, you will find yourself hung out to dry in mid-air like dead flying fish. Or you could find yourself plummeting into the jagged rocks below.
But when (not if) you do fall, just get back up. Because no matter how perilous the fall is, there is a wealth of opportunities, success, and beauty waiting patiently ahead of you.