In the middle of this past weekend's snowstorm, I stood in front of the path to my house wondering how to navigate the many feet of snow that had been placed there by a snowplow. I decided to throw myself over and tumble, a move I should have left behind in sixth grade gymnastics. When I got to the other side, I had no idea how to get up. I had nothing but soft, fresh snow to put my hands on, making it impossible to push myself up. I had not worked through this strategy.
My lack of coordination prompted an internal conversation about falling that serendipitously made an appearance this week in the Talmud's daily study cycle, the statement above. You can never get to true understanding and wisdom unless you stumble. The Talmud hangs this statement on a biblical verse: "And let this stumbling block be under your hand" (Isaiah 3:6). In other words, you hold the key to your own stumbling by how you respond and react to your own mistakes.
Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains this Talmudic aphorism as a motivation to work harder. People need to suffer the humiliation of being wrong so that they will work twice as hard to achieve a correct understanding of what they are learning. The pain of error is often enough to trigger the difficult work to achieve understanding. But this is risky because if it really hard to achieve comprehension, the learner may just walk away from the endeavor altogether. Another common explanation of this statement is that if you don't make mistakes in your learning, you risk becoming arrogant and think you are above making mistakes - which will eventually lead to making mistakes.
In a twelfth century mystical text from Sefer ha-Bahir, translated by Daniel Matt in The Essential Kabbalah, this Talmudic text is used in support of the study of mysticism, a natural locus of confusion. "Whoever delves into mysticism cannot help but stumble, as it is written: 'this stumbling block is in your hand.' You cannot grasp these things unless you stumble over them." Fall and fall again and maybe once more and then slowly you will learn something of transcendence.
Speaking of falling, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus make an important distinction in their book Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. When discussing approaches for what they call learning organizations, they identify two forms of learning: maintenance learning and innovative learning. "Maintenance learning is the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods, and rules for dealing with known and recurring situations. It enhances our problem-solving ability for problems that are given." This type of learning, they contend, helps maintain an existing system with the minimum amount of thought and work. Automating responses to problems creates consistency and a shared language. When you induct people into any culture, knowing the rules and rituals that help sustain that culture form a base-line of understanding.
But maintenance learning will not serve a community well when thrown a difficult, unprecedented situation. Relying on a default position will not work. Citing a book called No Limits to Learning, Bennis and Nanus contend that this is when innovative learning kicks in: "...for long-term survival, particularly in times of turbulence, change, or discontinuity, another type of learning is even more essential. It is the type of learning that can bring change, renewal, restructuring, and problem reformulation..."
Innovative learning is much more difficult because there are no familiar contexts in which to manage a problem. There are no precedents or trial-and-error histories to study. You make the errors along the way to understanding and the evolution of new ideas. Managers tend to handle maintenance learning. Leaders are required for innovative learning since they need the vision to see what others cannot see and the risk-taking to make and learn from large mistakes.
I remember work I did with a non-profit organization where employees complained that they were expected to be innovative but also given the message that mistakes were not allowed. Pick one. You cannot have both approaches together. This type of inconsistency lives not only in organizations but in faith communities and in families.
Think of your last spectacular fall and be comforted by the Talmud's words: "A person does not understand statements of Torah unless he stumbles in them." The Talmud is advocating innovative learning. So fail well. Fail more than once. Then fail all the way to success.