Failure

“Fail, fail again, fail better.”

  • Pema Chödrön, Buddhist Monastic

When Pema Chödrön’s granddaughter was accepted to Naropa University, the nun promised she would speak at the young woman’s commencement ceremony. Her address was entitled, “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.” It was based on a quote from Samuel Beckett, the Irish author, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Do Pema Chödrön and Samuel Beckett glorify failure?  What do they mean, fail once, fail again and fail better?  Isn’t once enough?  Isn’t failing again, especially at the same task or enterprise, a demonstration of incompetence, stupidity or the inability to learn from one’s mistakes.  And how can you pair the words “fail” and “better”? Isn’t that pairing an oxymoron?

I could not continue this series of articles on respect and the Executive Assistant (EA) without mentioning that all EA’s, even the best of us, are human and that failure, on occasion, is inevitable for everyone. Some failures lead to catastrophic events in our lives: dismissal from a job, the end of a marriage, the loss of esteem from those we love most.  Such enormous failures may leave us broken, consumed by guilt and wondering if there is a way to go on, to go forward.  Other failures are less consequential, merely embarrassing, and leave us wondering about our own competence and worth.

The mature, balanced and equanimous EA, like everyone else with these qualities, is not devastated by her mistakes and failures – small or large. She knows that they are events in the flow of her work life, and not a descriptor of her as a person.  Every failure is an opportunity to learn.  When the EA finds herself in her personal vortex of negligence, oversight, and carelessness, she will first ask herself: “How can I get through this?” And second, “What can I learn from it?”  She might also say, “How can I make sure I don’t fail again?” but this is an unrealistic hope. Failure is part of the fabric of life; hence, “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

A few excerpts from Pema Chödrön’s commencement address at Naropa may shed light on the concept of “failing better.” 

“…James Joyce wrote about how mistakes can be ‘the portals of discovery.’ In other words, mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things…[But first, you must]  allow yourself to feel what you feel when things don’t go the way you want them to… ‘Fail better’ means you begin to have the ability to hold the rawness of vulnerability in your heart, and see it as your connection with other human beings and as a part of your humanness… Failing better means that failure becomes a rich and fertile ground instead of just another slap in the face.”

How does the Executive Assistant feel when her carefully constructed and meticulously detailed travel itinerary, the hundredth she has created, is missing a crucial piece of information, causing her boss to call, in a panic, from Los Angeles on his way to Japan saying he has no seat assignment?  How does she feel and what does she do when her executive calls, irate, from downtown saying that the meeting on the calendar for 2 p.m. was over before she arrived?  What will she say?  What kinds of checks and balances will she initiate for the future?  Will her self-confidence take a nose dive?  How does she recover and move forward?  What if a confidence entrusted to her has been exposed due to a momentary lapse of caution?  Or a report is published containing errors that embarrass her manager?  What if she commits a cultural faux pas while welcoming high-profile international guests causing offense to the visitors? 

I could go on and on with examples of common mistakes and failures.  Virtually every EA I know can find herself somewhere in the above list of omissions or missteps. The brave ones call on deep reserves of humility and fine-tuned grace to recover quickly and correct the situation.  They own up to the mistake, take responsibility for it, apologize and describe how they plan to avoid it in the future.  They do not spend time wallowing in guilt, shame, and blame, knowing these emotions don’t help themselves or the others involved.  They respect their larger, fuller personas and they offer the same understanding and respect to others when they fail.

I want to emphasize the invaluable practice of self-respect.  Saying that you respect yourself while sitting quietly and reflecting on what about you is respectable is all well and good.   Practicing self-respect under challenging conditions, when your actions are unsuccessful or less than optimal, is another matter entirely.  Refusing to listen to the inner voices of blame, or to get stuck with the self-accusation that you are a failure takes strength and practice.   You are bigger than the current fiasco.  Your identity is broader, fuller, more comprehensive than the bungled incident at hand.  So, do not waste energy pasting a “failure” label on your forehead; focus on what can be done now and then reflect on what might be done in similar situations in the future. Failing better takes practice, and you will learn to see it as a “portal to creativity.”

The principle of “non-identification,” is a hard one to grasp and practice. Refuse to allow the small persona of the momentary failure to train-wreck your larger persona – who you really are at the core and in the bigger perspective of your life.  To practice successfully you must be honest with yourself and eschew self-judgment. Breathe deeply, calm the embarrassment and self-recriminations, find a quiet place and time to get in touch with the roots of your distress and shame, stay in this inner space and be kind to yourself.  Allow yourself to accept your own humanness and essential goodness.  Celebrate it!  And then, go forth and…

Fail, fail again, fail better!

4 thoughts on “Failure

  1. Having just experienced a totally unexpected failure, I found this really helpful and insightful. The phrase ‘face the fear and do it anyway’ has come back to me at this moment.

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    1. Thank you, Rachel. I like your phrase. Mine, at this point in my life, is “put it out there and let go of it,” meaning, I often have some control over what I can offer, but none at all over the outcome or how it is received.

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  2. Thank you, Moriah, for a beautifully written reminder for all of us—this EA lens translates to just about every facet of my life. Daily. And I’ll bet others’, too. What a valuable message for those active in your field, in particular. I hope this reaches as many of them as possible.

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  3. Recently I had an “explosive” failure. I was making cream of mushroom soup from scratch (for the umpteenth time) and came to the point of liquifying the cooked broth and vegetables in a blender. The first batch went fine, coming out smooth and creamy. For the second batch, I had a momentarily brilliant idea to pulse the blender instead of turning it on slowly – 1, 2, 3. I remember this idea shooting through my brain just before I flicked the pulse button. Whoosh! A mushroom “cloud” came flying out of the small air holes in the top of blender all over my face, hair, apron, the counter, the walls and all the way across the kitchen to the refrigerator. I uttered a string of expletives (because I was at home and not in public) and then, internally started berating myself for being so stupid, for trying something new instead of using the tried and true method, for wasting time, etc.

    Of course, the story in my mind got bigger as I grumbled while cleaning up the mess: what a miserable cook I am; how disgusting that I got all worked up and swore; dinner will be late and the rest of the evening ruined. Thankfully, it occurred to me, at some point, that this whole scene was funny so I started to laugh.

    I was able to calm down and look at the bigger picture. This incident was one small blip in my “stellar” (ha, ha) cooking career; the counters needed a thorough wiping anyway; the soup would still be delicious even if the batch were smaller. And, I had learned an invaluable and unforgettable lesson about what NOT to do with the pulse button on the blender. Things got better from there. This was shortly after I had posted the article on Failure and the EA and I smiled and told myself I would “fail better” next time. I hope this makes you laugh!

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