"My life is one learning experience after another; by the end of the week I should be a genius."
"I failed!" One of the exercises I like to do in my seminars and trainings with leaders in the business world or the non-profit world is have everyone stand up, throw their arms above their heads, and with great enthusiasm and joy, proclaim - "I failed!" It usually takes doing this about three times to let go of the tightness, the awkwardness and self-judgment, and to relax into the possibility of enjoying failure, embracing failure, learning and being transformed by failure.
A college professor in one of my workshops found this exercise to be life-changing. He was so conditioned to succeed and to avoid failure at all cost, that taking joy in failure, even just for a few moments, lifted an enormous weight off of his shoulders that he had been carrying around his entire life.
When we can relax and open ourselves to the myriad small failures, it actually increases our ability to perform at higher levels, and reduces the risk of larger failures that might have important consequences. It's somewhat like the rocket that goes from the earth to the moon - though a clear path is projected, in reality, the rocket is constantly veering off the projected path, quickly responding and adjusting, and returning to the path - one constant adjustment after another, until it lands where it is supposed to. Our daily lives are often much like this.
When we are paying attention, failure happens much of the time, in small and large ways - an email I sent with a spelling error; a false assumption I made about something my wife said; eating that piece of chocolate I had decided to avoid. Accepting failure and embracing change have become buzzwords, clichés in our culture, making us to miss the power and potential of actually looking at failure and change through a new lens. It takes slowing down enough, listening with fresh ears and seeing with fresh eyes.
I avoid failure as much as possible. I want to succeed, not fail. I want to look smart, successful and competent. And, as much as I hate to admit it, some of the most valuable growth and development have come through difficulty and failure.
During this time of year, with the holidays approaching, I find there are even more opportunities for failure - burning the turkey, forgetting to invite or acknowledge someone, saying the wrong thing, and so on. In some ways, the more we care, the more we open our hearts, the more we want everything to go as planned, to meet our visions of perfection, of success that we hold dear.
My heart, like yours, is tender. In fact, this is one of the great benefits of so-called "failures." Failure can soften our hearts, and allow us to see and connect with the tender hearts of others.
The challenge is: How can we keep our hearts open and be kind to ourselves and others, right in the midst of difficulty and failure?
Here are a few ways to embrace , cultivate, and learn from failure:
1) "I failed" - A starting point is to acknowledge mistakes and failure. Usually we try to hide, avoid or minimize our failures. In my seminars, once we do the "I failed" exercise, whenever someone makes a mistake they take great joy in throwing their arms in the air and proclaim "I failed!" As the workshop leader, I too find great joy in admitting my failures. Bringing some version of this into my work and my relationships - embracing and poking fun at my failures - transforms the entire sense of "failure."
2) Breathe - Instead of tightening with failure, experiment with noticing your breath. Your breath is always there. Think, "I am breathing; I am alive," right in the midst of difficulty and failure.
3) Solutions - Instead of tightening and being self-critical around failure, try inquiring about solutions. Experiment with asking yourself what you can learn from failure. What might you do differently next time? What adjustments and responses can you make, as you learn and grow from failure?
It is sometimes said that the life of a Zen teacher (or anyone for that matter) can be described as "one mistake after another."