If there is one skill that is not stressed very much, but is really needed, it is knowing how to fail. There is a Samuel Beckett quote that goes “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” That quote is what will help you more than anything else in the next year, the next ten years, the next twenty years, for as long as you live, until you drop dead.
There is a lot of emphasis on succeeding. We all want to succeed, especially if we consider success to be things working out the way we want them to. Failing is what we don’t usually get a lot of preparation for.
So how to fail?
We usually think of failure as something that happens to us from the outside: We can’t get in a good relationship or we are in a relationship that ends painfully; we can’t get a job or we are fired from the job we have; or any number of ways in which things are not how we want them to be.
There are usually two ways that we deal with that. The first is that we blame it on some other—our boss, our partner, whoever. The second is that we feel really bad about ourselves and label ourselves a failure.
This is what we need a lot of help with: this feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, that we are the failure because of the relationship or the job or whatever it is that didn’t work out—botched opportunities, doing something that flops, heartbreak of all kinds.
One of the ways to help yourself is to begin to question what is really happening when there is a failure.
Someone gave me a quote from Ulysses where James Joyce writes about how failure can lead to discovery. He actually doesn’t use the word failure; he uses errors, which he says can be “the portals of discovery.”
It can be hard to tell what’s a failure and what’s just something that is shifting your life in a different direction. In other words, failure can be the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh perspective.
I will use me as an example. The worst time in my life was when I felt like the greatest failure, and this had to do with a second failed marriage. I had never experienced such vulnerability and pain than during that particular groundless, rug-pulled-out experience. And I really felt bad about myself.
It took me three years to make the transition from wanting to go back to the solid ground of what I had known before to having the willingness to go forward into a brand-new life. But when I did, it resulted in a profound sense of well-being. It resulted in me becoming a best-selling author!
Sometimes you experience failed expectations as heartbreak and disappointment, and sometimes you feel rage. But at that time, instead of doing the habitual thing of labeling yourself a “failure” or a “loser” or thinking there is something wrong with you, you could get curious about what is going on. Just remember that you never know where something will lead.
Getting curious about outer circumstances and how they are impacting you, noticing what words come out and what your internal discussion is—this is the key.
If there is a lot of “I am bad. I am terrible,” simply notice that and soften up a bit. Instead say, “What am I feeling here? Maybe what is happening is not that I am failure—maybe I am just hurting.”
This is what human beings have felt since the beginning of time. If you want to be a complete human being, if you want to be genuine and hold the fullness of life in your heart, then failure is an opportunity to get curious about what is going on and listen to the storylines. Don’t buy the ones that blame it on everybody else, and don’t buy the storylines that blame it on yourself, either.
This is the thing: I have been in this space of feeling like a failure a lot of times, and I used to be like anybody else when I was in it. I’d just close down, and there was no awareness or curiosity or anything.
Out of that space of failure can come addictions of all kinds—addictions because we do not want to feel it, because we want to escape, because we want to numb ourselves. Out of that space can come aggression, striking out, violence. Out of that space can come a lot of ugly things.
I carried a lot of habitual reactivity of trying to get out of that space. Then as years went by (and meditation had a big part to play in this), I began to get to the place where I really did become curious in that space you can call failing—the kind of raw, visceral feeling of having blown it or failed or gotten something wrong or hurt someone’s feelings.
And so I can tell you that it is out of this same space that come our best human qualities of bravery, kindness, and the ability to really reach out to and care about each other. It’s where real communication with other people starts to happen, because it’s a very unguarded, wide-open space in which you can go beyond the blame and just feel the bleedingness of it, the raw-meat quality of it.
It’s from that space that our best part of ourselves comes out. It’s in that space—when we aren’t masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away—that our best qualities begin to shine.
Adapted from Pema Chödrön’s commencement address to the 2014 graduating class of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. The full speech will be published by Sounds True in “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better” in September.
[This story was first published in 2015]