Last month at The South by Southwest Interactive Festival, I heard Harvard scholar Sarah Lewis discuss the importance of the willingness to fail, a theme that is at the heart of her book on the history of art and innovation, The Rise. She said that the concept of failure itself is imperfect. Once we begin to transform what we have termed a failure, once we begin to learn from it, to adapt our approach based on what didn't work last time, it ceases to be failure any longer. Clearly, to Lewis, failure is not the worst outcome. The worst fate is not trying in the first place. Think of all the great works of art and invention that would not exist if their makers were too afraid of failure to experiment.
I help leaders of faith and moral courage speak in the media about what they believe and how to make the world a better place. I'm the funny little coach in the corner, prepping modern-day Moseses to tell ol' Pharaoh to let their people go.
Recently, I was talking with a producer at The Today Show about faith leaders who might make interesting guests during Holy Week and the days leading up to Passover.
Having trained thousands of the country's leading prophetic voices, you couldn't stop me listing people I thought she ought to have on her show. But there was one segment for which the producer pushed me to be on The Today Show. Like Cinderella who let herself think just for a minute that she might have her night at the ball, I considered it fleetingly, but quickly the tape in my head played: I help others stand up for what they believe, I don't do it myself.
Later that day I sat down to write this piece on Sarah Lewis' talk and the willingness to fail. I felt deflated. I thought that perhaps if I had said "Yes" to The Today Show, then, whether my appearance was a home run or a disaster, I would have had a hook for this story. But I didn't want to take the risk, so instead, I just sat there at my keyboard, not knowing what to say.
And here's my sweet little second-child secret. Growing up with two outspoken sisters and PhD'ed parents with no shortage of passion, I remember my daily desire to be heard at the kitchen table -- for my voice to matter -- and the calculation that in the end it was a safer bet to sit back and listen. I would ask myself, "Why risk feeling foolish in the face of the people you admire most?" Still, something in my spirit wouldn't rest until I had my say -- 'til I stood for what I believed (and isn't that just how the spirit works?). So I became a filmmaker -- speaking with my camera through other people's testimonies -- and a media trainer, helping the world come to voice as I continued down my own lifelong journey to come to voice myself.
Back at my keyboard, the phone rang again. Of course.
The Today Show producer insisted, "It's you we want to hear from. You have worked with so many different kinds of leaders coming to voice. We want to know what you've observed about this generation of faith leadership."
And so I said, "Yes."
And it went ok. I was seated next to a movie star with movie star good looks. I should have buttoned my blazer, and it isn't easy for me to face my receding hairline on national TV. There are the points I didn't make and, with each hour (especially the midnight hours), I think of a new point I should have made. But on national TV, I stood for love. I spoke about the importance of putting our love into practice to make the world a better place, and 8 million people, give or take a few, heard me say it.
So, here's to going to bat -- even in the face of failure -- rather than sitting out the game of life. Here's to the leader I media trained this past week, let's call him Rodney, who went on National Public Radio and told a gorgeous story, even though it was slightly out of sync with the conversation the journalist and the rest of the guests were having. Here's to the leader I worked with last week, let's call her Tricia, who returned to bat after having her first child and sounded on talk radio like she was dialing it in, serious steps back from the A Game she brought before she stepped out to have her child.
And, on the flip side, here's to Jacqui who has had her share of almost-great appearances. She's practiced for more than seven years, struggling simply to be her fierce and loving natural self on TV. Just this season Jacqui has broken through.
Sarah Lewis said that we need a word for the icy winters of our creative life, for the times of failure, of frustration, of coming up short.
Moses and the Israelites suffered through the wilderness for 40 years. All that time, they could never be certain where their journey would end, whether or not God would make good on God's promise of liberation.
And imagine Jesus, heading to the cross, wondering if his relatively short stint at ministry and prophetic witness amounted to much of anything, as his closest disciples disobeyed, denied and forsook him -- as did perhaps even his God.
But what other choice do we have? Should the artist never try in the first place? Should the Moses in us make our peace with the injustice of our Egypt for fear we might fall victim to it ourselves? Should the Jesus in us stick with carpentry because it's just a safer bet?
You've got to try, to risk failure, fight for life in order to know what it means to be alive. However embarrassing, however disheartening, the only way for this icy winter to turn is for us to continue saying "Yes" and speaking out for that which we believe. Then suddenly, one day, the crocuses, so purple, fragile and yet so bold, break ground. Who knows quite how or why or what the crocus' role really is, but all Spring -- from the tallest of trees to the widest of meadows -- follows suit, bursting forth in bloom. Phone's ringing. Just say "Yes."