Putting The S Curve Into Practice By Throwing It Off A Cliff (With A Harness)

Last week, I had the pleasure to meet fifty interesting, delightful human beings – not a joy you experience every day – and everyone was part of the Executive MBA program at BYUs Marriott School. The price of entry seemed modest, teaching and speaking with the master’s students on Friday evening. But the real price of entry turned out to be jumping, literally, to a new S Curve, on what the Marriott School calls… their Epic Learning Adventure.

The setting was Moab, Utah, the Red Cliffs Lodge, on the mighty Colorado River, the majesty and grandeur of which I could not and would not capture in a photo. There was the added boost of knowing that not much further down the river was a geologic formation called Bryce Canyon, which serendipitously bears the name of my second great-grandfather. 

Day 1 in Utah was river rafting. Well, more like floating, past the scenery where many of the classic John Wayne films were filmed, as well as an upcoming Kevin Costner cowboy flick. We took on a few rapids to keep it interesting, and a brief cold plunge in the river that, I assure you, is still carrying freezing run-off from the snows.

That evening I spoke about the S Curve, about disrupting yourself, about doing new things. It was useful to the students, so they tell me, and that was good, but the next morning, I had to practice what I was preaching. That morning, the Epic Learning Adventure director, John Bingham, said it was time to learn how to rappel down a cliff.

There are lessons galore, and metaphors abound.

But I’ll name just a few —

  1. The first one is simple. Rappelling was thrilling and terrifying, everything that the launch point of the S Curve should be and feel like. Hard rock under your hands, the tension of a single rope holding you above more hard rock below you.
  1. I was bad at it! Genuinely, honestly bad. And I was sweating like crazy; not from exertion, but from fear, that kind that builds in your stomach and flutters around, but I didn’t care, because I was doing something new. I was building that mental muscle, that flexes when it’s time to take on something new. 
  1. Would what I said the night before, in front of the fifty MBA students, would it have had the same impact if I hadn’t been willing to do this new thing? Jump to new S Curves y’all; it’s how you grow as a person. Oh me? I’ll just sit and watch. Nope.
  1. And, what made all this risk-taking, all this ‘playing where I hadn’t played before’ possible, was the ecosystem, the environment, the stability that the guides, that the students, provided. The day before, the day of, and even right before we took on the cliff, we were reminded that our guides knew exactly what they were doing, that they had us, and that we would be safe. And they cheered us on the whole way down, even ringing a cowbell when our feet touched the ground.

When I was finally, blessedly, down, I let out a very loud whoop with my hands raised. Not because I did it well, but because I did it—because it was terrifying and thrilling. The launch point is about nurturing those feelings, not immediate—often unattainable—success.

That’s my practice for the week, for the quarter, and possibly for the year, though the year is still young. Do something scary. To be clear, even though this was dangerous, the stakes were lower than, say, an Alex Honnold-type using nothing but the tips of his fingers. Doing this in this way was consistent with my identity. I am healthy. I could do it, I can do it, and I did. 

If you’re looking for some more guidance on tackling our fears (and discovering what lies beyond them), there’s episode 369 with Ruth McKeaney. There aren’t many things more terrifying than a contractor telling you the floors need to be ripped out, or the pipes are busted, or the foundation is settling, but Ruth took on all that and more, flipping houses while discovering her calling after leaving the law.

And the same goes for episode 370 with Roger L. Martin. Roger took on an Epic Learning Adventure the size of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management when he became dean – a struggling mid-tier Canadian business school that Roger was warned against trying to fix. But expert rappellers know that for the highest cliffs, you have to tackle it in chunks, resting in those sling carriers nailed into the rockface along the way. Roger’s an expert in breaking down the descent, and I’d love for you to take a listen.


So, this May, what’s scary for you? What can you do this week to build the muscle that you want? Maybe it’s something physical; here in Virginia, the weather’s practically begging for a jog. But maybe it’s infinitely more terrifying: having a conversation you know you need to have, asking for something you know you want and need to ask for, and saying no to someone you need to say no to.

Whatever it is, do it, create the conditions for it, bottle up your courage, tighten the lid, and then do it. You can. You’ve got this.

My best,

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