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A Little Happier: A Stumble May Prevent a Fall.


As I’ve mentioned many times, I love proverbs, aphorisms, Zen koans, paradoxes, fables….I love reading any single line where a big idea is succinctly expressed, or any kind of teaching story.

I try to write them myself, and I collect any memorable ones that I find.

Because of this passion, I have a giant document called “One Sentence Aphorisms” where I collect my favorites.

Of my entire collection, one proverb is among my favorites. I write a lot about in Better Than Before, my book about how to make and break habits.

I quote the proverb at the beginning on the chapter on the Strategy of Safeguards, about how we can take steps in our lives to safeguard our habits, to make it easier to stick to them, and harder to break them—and how we can learn from our mistakes, to do a better job keeping our habits in the future.

I love the saying “A stumble may prevent a fall” because it’s so comforting. Yes, I screwed up, yes, I didn’t do something the way I’d hoped I’d do it, but my mistake can help me. I can learn from it. A small misstep can help me avoid a giant misstep.

I think about this in many areas of my life, not just in relation to habits. For instance, in high school, my daughter Eliza got way behind in her understanding of physics, and she needed to do a lot of work over spring break to catch up. This wasn’t fun for her, but she did it.

At the time, I felt very annoyed that she’d let the situation progress as it had. But then I thought, “A stumble may prevent a fall.” She learned something from that experience—that it’s easier to keep up than to catch up; that difficult material doesn’t become easier over time without a lot of effort; that it’s not helpful to avoid things that you’d rather not think about.

These are important lessons to learn, and maybe learning them in the context of her high school physics class means that she won’t make the mistake in college, or in her first job after college, of waiting too long to work on a big dreaded report.

Little mistakes, little missteps, can help us learn and grow so that we don’t make bigger mistakes later. It’s unpleasant to experience this, but it may save us more pain, later.

A stumble may prevent a fall.

Do you have a proverb, aphorism, or quotation that you've found particularly useful?

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A stumble may prevent a fall.

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