A group of young boys from the inner city—self-admitted gang members—stood atop one of the largest rock massifs in Joshua Tree National Park. I was their wilderness instructor for the weekend, out in the deserts of California. The goal was to rappel down from the top of this rock, known as Cyclops, to the ground below. This was no normal rappel; this was 150 feet of free air. No rock wall to walk down, just them, the rope, and their own thoughts.
At first they were against it, ganging up on me, refusing the challenge before them. What was it then, fear of heights? Fear of falling? No, it was fear of failing. More specifically, fear of failing in front of each other. So I talked with them and listened. Encouraged them to expose the real reasons for their refusal, and from there we explored what failure really is. Failure isn’t being unable to accomplish something; failure is not trying.
I reassured them that in trying the challenge before them, nothing bad would happen. I’d be right there with them. What I saw before me was not a group of threatening gang members, but a group of fearful boys seeking reassurance, validation, and a desire to belong.
Within moments the youngest—presumably weakest—said he’d do it. He’d rappel down. He’d accept the challenge. And in that moment, I saw change happen before my eyes. As he came to stand on the ground below, I saw the joy and relief of a mind no longer burdened by thought; the pride that came with being the first in the group to tackle his fear. From that minute, I knew I had them all. Instead of hesitating, they began to vie for the opportunity to be next––the opportunity overcome.