Thought Leadership

Two steps forward, one step back – learning from setbacks

By Colin Walls

As I write this, I am a week away from a short vacation [so there will be a temporary radio silence around here next week] and, somehow, this puts me into a philosophical mood – pondering the meaning of life and all that. I wrote a while ago about learning to swim – a journey which continues – and I have made plenty of progress, but I am still not quite where I want to be.

I have realized that progress is not always simple forward movement …

I came to swimming late in life – in my 50s – with an attitude of “better late than never”. I figured that all I needed was a skilled, patient teacher and I could learn to swim in much the same way as I have acquired other skills over the years. My assumption was that there are various specific things to learn and apply and, with practice, I would be confident in the water. Now, a couple of years down the line, swimming is very much part of my life and I realize that, although some of my assumptions were correct, being at home in the water takes more than the learning of a few facts.


First off, there is what I call “head vs heart”: I know that something is true, but find myself inhibited from putting that knowledge into practice. For example, early on I knew that, if I just leaned forward into the water and let my legs follow behind me, I would glide along, not sink like a stone. Knowing that did not help, as my heart overruled my head – I was unable to trust my knowledge. The role of a good teacher is to gently reconcile this disparity.

Following on from this, I observed the phenomenon that I called “2 steps forward, 1 step back”. It seems that I could learn to do something, like unaided gliding that I mentioned above. Then, for some reason I would “forget” how to do it – lose my nerve perhaps. In due course, I would make my way back, perhaps with some gentle coaxing, and could start to make some more progress. The key thing I learned was not to be dispirited – if I could do something last week, there is no logical reason why I will not be doing it again in the near future.

So, my advice is to listen to your head, as it will win out in the end. And, if you have a setback, just hang on in there and be patient.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at