Certainly, you’ve heard the well-worn trope, “We learn from our mistakes.” It is the mantra of experiential learning. That we learn something from mistakes is taken as fact, and justifies a wide range of trial-and-error approaches to everyday life.

However, what it is we actually learn is sometimes up for debate.

Do We Learn From Our Mistakes?

It’s hard to imagine having a close call on the river and not coming away affected. Like most long-time whitewater paddlers, I can come up with a pretty good list of my close calls. These are the stories we all tell each other on tailgates and bar stools. But what do we actually learn?

Way back in 1943, psychologist John T. MacCurdy coined “near miss,” a term we still use today in the field of safety and outdoor risk management.

MacCurdy was studying survivor responses to the World War II London air bombings. He was trying to learn more about the nature of fear and morale in society—the war being an unfortunate but convenient experiment for him to observe. While MacCurdy’s near miss term lives on, his more important findings did not.

MacCurdy recognized two groups of people living in London at the time of the night bombing raids. The near misses were the individuals closest to the bombings, the ones who could actually “feel the blast and see the destruction.” These people survived powerfully influenced by the events, having experienced real fear. He used the word “impressed,” to mean “the event created a very strong impression on the individuals’ memories.”

The second group MacCurdy called the “remote misses”. This group and the term itself were left behind as his ideas carried forward through the years.

The remote misses were the individuals who heard the air raid sirens, saw the Germans fly over, but did not experience the destruction of the bombs themselves. These individuals, it surprised MacCurdy to learn, were left with “a feeling of excitement with a flavor of invulnerability.”

The remote miss individuals didn’t pay the price of the bombing, nor were they exposed first-hand to the devastating losses. Their impression was the exact opposite to those in the near miss group. The German’s air raid strategy of instilling shock and fear failed dramatically. For this much larger portion of the population, the London bombings were actually kind of thrilling. What MacCurdy stumbled upon was an unlikely sense of invulnerability accompanying knowing destruction is all around, but coming away unscathed.

And so it was with me. And MacCurdy’s research would suggest it was, or will be, with you too.

My first run down the magically deceiving Dragon’s Tongue at Garvin’s on the Ottawa River left me beat down in the hole at the bottom, dragged to shore by my buddies and euphorically buzzed. I probably high-fived somebody. I survived and it wasn’t so bad. Actually, it was kind of thrilling. Even fun.

I have quite a long list of these beat-down-to-fun-buzz scenarios. So what did I learn from my mistakes? Throughout my intermediate years I learned getting surfed, stuck, semi-pinned and swimming is not so bad. I learned I could actually screw up pretty good and get away with it.

Are these the lessons I should have been taking away from my mistakes? Are these the lessons building a competent, safe paddler? Of course not.

Looking back, what I should have learned over and over again, is I was missing some key river reading skills and I did not have a complete understanding of controlling momentum. I got away with it for a long time. Until I didn’t.

My first real near miss was a good whack on the head in a big, ugly hole in the Elora Gorge at flood level. It really wasn’t a miss at all, but a full hit that could have been much worse. Those river reading lessons I was ignoring caught up with me, put me where I was not supposed to be, and I paid with a lost paddle, rock climb out of the gorge and a nagging three-day headache.

Adam Johnson on Crooked River, New Zealand | Photo: Tegan Owens

My near miss left me deeply impressed and with a large dose of residual fear. Hundreds of runs later I still conjure up that memory on the approach to any gorge run.

Fifty years before the Internet, MacCurdy pointed out that unless we pay some price, leaving us significantly impressed, we are likely to be learning the wrong things from our mistakes.

By watching our friends make mistakes on the river and getting away with it, our sense of invulnerability is further reinforced. Watch 75 horrible lines over Fowlersville Falls turn out okay at New York State’s Moose Festival and we wonder what the fuss about safety is all about.

Or worse, turn to social media where we can stream hundreds of miraculously close calls happening every day. For many of the sorry souls involved, these beat downs leave them very impressed. But as remote watchers of the highlight reels, it only builds in us an unhealthy confidence of what is possible to get away with.

Until we don’t.

Jeff Jackson is a professor at Algonquin College in eastern Ontario and consults on safety and risk management.

This article first appeared in the 2015 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine and get 25 years of digital magazine archives including our legacy titles: Rapid, Adventure Kayak and Canoeroots.

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Jeff Jackson has been teaching kayaking since boats were long and eddy turns were nervous. And yes, he used to be cool. Rapid contributor since way back in 1999. Guiding on rivers has taken him from the Yukon to China, and his Alchemy column explores the values and lessons life on the water brings. When not teaching outdoor education at Algonquin College, he spends his time guiding, fly fishing, building mountain bike trails and conducting risk management research.


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