Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

I don’t like making mistakes. I learnt when I was very young that the way to get approval from my parents was to do well in school exams. So I studied hard, and regurgitated the info that the teachers gave me… and got lots of A+’s. I wasn’t really learning anything fundamentally useful, but that didn’t seem to bother me or my parents. I wasn’t making mistakes, and that seemed to be important.

But this strategy isn’t working for me anymore. I can devise a menu plan and work on my recipes, but with so many variables (mainly of the human-kind) there is always a dish waiting to be ruined. The belief that I’ve failed feels kind of raw. It’s very unpleasant. My first reaction, the reaction to the feeling of raw vulnerable-ness in my heart, is obviously (!) to blame someone else – the kitchen assistant, the person who distracted me at a critical moment – or even something else – the oven, the blunt knives, the humidity (yes really!!).


And of course there is no one actually to blame but myself, but that’s even more painful. Who wants to feel that incapable? Maybe I should never have been hired as a Chef, I am definitely, totally incompetent.

Pema Chodron chose the topic of failure for her commencement speech at Naropa University in 2014.  Her speech was entitled Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. I thought it was interesting that she wanted to prepare these young adults for the failures they would experience, and not take the more usual approach of emphasising the desirability of success. Classic buddhist!

One of my dharma teachers from the US, Gloria Taraniya, once gave a very potent talk on the unavoidable presence of suffering in our lives, which has helped me a lot. ‘Suffering’ here means things aren’t going the way I want. You can listen to it online via Dharma Seed, it’s called Nun’s Tea and The First Noble Truth. She tells an anecdote about a gathering of her female sangha who had met for afternoon tea, and one woman shares details of a thorny situation which is very unpleasant for her. All the wise friends try and come up with solutions and supportive expressions to try and fix the situation and /or make it go away. After a long silence, exhausted from trying  unsuccessfully to come up with an answer, someone finally says – “well this is it isn’t it, this is dukkha. This is the first Noble Truth. Things don’t work out the way we want them to.” Taraniya describes how the energy in the room dropped from heads to hearts; what a relief in many ways just to come to a place of acceptance. ‘This is how it is’.

In Fail, Fail Again Fail Better, Chodron encourages us to not use the word ‘failure’ and instead say ‘mistake’, as in making a mistake. She quotes James Joyce Ulysses to emphasise that mistakes can be “the portals of discovery”, the gateway to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look at things.

Zen Master Dōgen said it this way: “If you want to practise the Buddha’s Way, then first of all you must trust in the Buddha’s Way. Those who trust in the Buddha Way should trust that they are in essence within the Buddha Way [you are Buddha Nature] where there is no delusion, no false thinking, no confusion, and no mistakes.”

What would it mean to really believe that there were no mistakes? I feel like my life has been full of them. Dōgen is offering a totally different perspective. He’s telling me that my mistakes ARE the path. My confusion, blunders and fiascos are also the path. As long as I have faith, and I am seeing all these ‘failures’ as an opportunity to learn something about myself, then it’s all grist for the mill.

Up at the Wangapeka we have just completed the most wonderful retreat which ran under the title Compassionate Relating. Unlike school days, we weren’t taught anything, but rather we were skilfully guided to look inside for understanding, via a series of exercises and meditations.  An analogy was offered to the group of how we humans are like icebergs; we hide so much of our ‘selves’ under the surface, and many relationships (even intimate ones) operate only from the 10% which is on show. And we’re ALL doing this, all the time. How can we ever really know or understand each other? It was also so very clear to me as the course progressed, that the more we all opened up and shared, revealed the hidden aspects, the hurts, the fears, the shame, the failures and so on, the more deeply we connected. This was possible because we also learnt how to hold space in a non-judgemental, trusting, honest and compassionate way.

Pema Chodron urges us to use our failures to move forward. She says:

“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 when these things happen in your life, they become a source of growth, a source of forward, a source of out of that place of rawness you can really communicate genuinely with other people.

Your best qualities come out of that place because it’s unguarded and you’re not shielding yourself. Failing better means that failure becomes a rich and fertile ground instead of just another slap in the face. And so I can tell you that it is out of this same space that comefailagain 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.

The question is, are you going to grow or are you going to just stay as you are out of fear and waste your precious human life by status quo-ing instead of being willing to break the sound barrier? Break the glass ceiling, or whatever it is in your own life? Are you willing to go forward?

I suggest finding the willingness to go forward instead of staying still, which is essentially going backward, particularly when you have a calling in some direction. That calling needs to be answered. And it’s not necessarily going to work out the way you want it to work out, but it is taking you forward, and you are leaving the nest. And that never can be a mistake—to fly instead of staying in the nest.

So let me try and welcome the unwelcome.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Samuel Beckett


Picture credits:

Broken Vase, by Kurt Bauschardt

Toaster, by Charles Dyer

Icebergs, by Christopher Michel

Depressed Rose, by Tobias Wrzal

Lonely Autumn Path, by Lenny K Photography



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