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The Question To Ask Yourself When You Feel Like A Failure

The Buddhist teacher and author of Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better has advice on how to cope when you can't stop thinking something is wrong with you.

 There is a lot of emphasis on succeeding. And whether we buy the hype or not, we all want to succeed, especially if you consider success to mean, "it works out the way I want it to." You know it feels good in the gut and in the heart because it worked out. So, failing, by that definition, is that it didn't work out the way you wanted it to. And failing is what we don't usually get a lot of preparation for. 

So, how to fail?

Well, one of the things I want to say about failure is that it feels very raw.

I think the most significant thing about failure is that we usually think of it 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 or we can't get a job. Or we are fired from the job we have.

There are usually two ways that we deal with that. We either blame it on somebody else or some other thing -- the organization, our boss, our partner, whatever. We move away from the rawness, from holding the rawness of vulnerability in our heart, by blaming it on the other.

The second really common way we deal with failure is that we feel really bad about ourselves and label ourselves "a failure." We have this feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. So someone gave me a quote, something from James Joyce's Ulysses, where Joyce wrote about how failure can lead to discovery. And he actually didn't use the word "failure"; he used the word "mistake," as in making a mistake. He said that mistakes can be "the portals of discovery."

In other words, mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh outlook on things.

But it's a little hard to tell what's a failure and what's just something that is shifting your life in a whole new direction. And 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 before experienced such rawness and vulnerability and pain as I did during that particularly groundless, rug-pulled-out kind of experience.

And I really felt bad about myself.

It took me a good three years to actually make the transition from just wanting to go back to the solid ground that I had known before to having the willingness to actually go forward into a whole brand-new life, a really good life that has a lot of happiness and well-being.

The main point here is this: Can you allow yourself to feel what you feel when things don't go the way you want them to? When things don't go the way you hoped, and wished and longed for them to go?

Failure of things not working out as you'd hoped doesn't feel good; but at that time, maybe instead of doing the habitual thing of thinking there is something wrong with you, you could get curious about what is going on.

Getting curious, 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," somehow just notice that and maybe soften up a bit. Instead say, "What I am feeling here?"

Maybe what is happening is not that I am a failure -- but that I am just hurting.

Here is a story about Naropa University's founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and my very first one-on-one interview with him. I went to the interview because I wanted to talk about the fact that I was feeling like such a failure and so raw.

But when I sat down in front of him, he said, "How is your meditation?"

I said, "Fine."

And then we just started talking, superficial chatter, until he stood up and said, "It was very nice to meet you," and started walking me to the door.

In other words, the interview was over.

And, so, at that point, realizing the interview was over, I just blurted out my whole story:

My life is over.
I have hit the bottom.
I don't know what to do.
Please help me.

Trungpa Rinpoche said, "Well, it's a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and sand in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea."

So, basically, you stand up, because the "lying there" choice equals dying. And, after a while, another big wave comes and knocks you down.

You find yourself at the bottom of the ocean with sand in your nose and sand in your mouth, and again you have the choice to lie there or to stand up and start walking forward.

"So the waves keep coming," he said, "and you keep cultivating your courage and bravery and sense of humor to relate to this situation of the waves, and you keep getting up and going forward."

Trungpa Rinpoche then said, "After a while, it will begin to seem to you that the waves are getting smaller and smaller. And they won't knock you over anymore."

That is good life advice: It isn't that the waves stop coming; it's that because you train in holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart, the waves just appear to be getting smaller and smaller, and they don't knock you over anymore.

This adapted excerpt was taken from Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better Pema Chödrön is also the author of Comfortable with Uncertainty and Start Where You Are.

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