When I was asked to speak about “Failing and Failing Well,” I struggled at how to narrow the possibilities and I called both my friends Karen and Andy to give me some clarity. Karen created the space for me to relive a highlight reel and Andy helped me with some clarifying questions:
- How do we deal with failure?
- How do I learn that it’s okay to fail?
- How do I accept myself for who I am rather than what I do?
I wondered . . .what are the failures I have encountered and what do I consider a failure . . . as what defines a failure has changed over time and experiences.
One failure that continues to create space for “Becoming Human” is something that I remember in my first year as the Director of the Shepard Freshmen Resource Center. I had great pride in the work of the office as we helped first year students transition from high school to college. I had a few ‘commandments’ for the student staff of the office – the first commandment was that we don’t give wrong information. It is critical that the freshmen can rely on us to give them accurate information as they learn the ropes of how college works. The same is true for the information we shared with their parents.
In October I mailed my third newsletter to first year parents about the important dates they needed to know for the end of the semester and the start of the next semester, like when the residence halls close and open. Over 800 parents. I sent the wrong dates. This was an epic fail. Maybe you can imagine . . . this was in the first three months of my being the Director of this important department and I just sent the wrong information to parents – people who are going to be buying plane tickets for their students to go home or to return to University of Portland in the spring. The distress was significant and even as I recall this, my gut remembers too – that sinking and desperate, heavy feeling of failure.
Solving the problem was simple . . . but the path to solving required a call to the Marketing department for help . . . now I had to admit my failure to another person, share my shame of being imperfect and await the judgement of others. However, the only judgment that came was in my own mind, my own heart. I beat myself up pretty well for a while and was diligent that I would not do THAT again.
A few years later, I hired another professional staff person for the Shepard Center. In the first three months of her employment she did the same thing . . . only bigger and better with greater visibility of the failure to the first-year students and faculty who taught them. The difference in this failure is that I wasn’t the one who had explicitly failed – it was my employee and it was so evident how this failure was creating extreme emotions in her. I recognized these emotions. I knew the possibilities of what she was feeling. I knew what I would have wanted to hear when I had made this same mistake just years earlier:
- That there was a way to deal with this failure and solve the problem
- That it was okay to fail . . . that this has happened before and I had made this same mistake
- That this failure did not define the her . . . that who she is and the confidence I have in her is not changed by what happened
When I shared that I had done a very similar thing and that I knew this was not who she was and how she shows up in her work I could see the relief it brought . . . it settled her fear and gave her space to encounter the emotions in this failure.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to navigate this same failure with two more times with other members of my staff – both new in their roles, both providing wrong information on a mass scale. Now I anticipate the arrival of the failure and am ready to support my staff to work on failing well.
My role in these failures was to navigate the failure, help solve the problem and be attentive to how they were feeling about failure . . . this theme of “how people feel” took me to a deeper and much more personal experience of failure.
Then the question came to mind, “when and how have I failed . . . in how my actions or words made someone feel.” This is where I found the “real” highlight reel of failures, where failures that still had some ownership of my humanity. I found where the heavy and the sad and the lonely of failure lives.
In beginning to consider the question, a memory came screaming back to me – fresh as the day I made it. I was somewhere between 6 and 8 years old. I had entered a coloring contest for a local bank and the announcement of which lucky child was going to win the “Whatever” was being held at the local pizza parlor. I was with my parents and brother enjoying pizza and waiting for the results of the competition. The announcement came and I was the . . . second-place winner. A friend of mine had won first place. The memory that came back was what I said in that moment to my friend, “I’m going to win next year.” I don’t recall his reaction, I actually don’t think he said anything – he was certainly more gracious than me . . . but I do remember on the ride home replaying and reflecting on what I had said . . . I hadn’t congratulated him, I hadn’t acknowledged that he had won . . . I proclaimed that I would win next year and left it at that. Then I wondered how did that make him feel. And I thought, I really could have done something different there.
Four of my top five strengths in the Strengths Finder program are in the relationship category, so it’s not strange that the failures I’ve had in the context of relationship held a significant piece of my heart and where it was not as readily evident how I have answered the questions of how I deal failure, how to learn that it’s okay to fail and how to accept myself for who I am rather than what I do.
Sixteen years ago, I had a major falling out with my brother, who is younger than me by just a few years. Our entire childhood, we had been the best of friends, being each other’s confidant, sharing adventures and stories. We were the envy of our aunts and uncles at how we got along so well with each other. Then something happened, something big and we both went into our corners with our share of the information, our injuries, our thoughts about what were experiencing. I donned the older sister “I know best’ mantle, let me be the guide through these dark times. I know that I didn’t explicitly say hurtful things, I know that I had the ‘best intentions’ as we were navigating the situation. However, my words and actions did harm to the relationship. And we spent about 10 years not in relationship as he pulled away.
It took a long time for me to understand what I had done, how I had not asked questions and listened and not validated his experience. I came to realize that I had said things and behaved in a way that shut him out and he couldn’t trust me anymore as a safe and loving relationship. As I came to this new way of seeing the experience, I couldn’t imagine how I had made him feel. I recognized the many ways I had failed. I had great fear at acknowledging my words and actions in how I had failed our relationship and fear of rejection in any attempt to reconcile.
It took time and courage, but I finally realized that YES – I HAD FAILED . . . . but if I wanted to find a way through this . . . to FAIL WELL, I must be vulnerable and declare my failure – say it out loud to my brother and apologize for it. I had nothing to lose – so why not try . . . even if I failed again.
The quote on the front of the program sheds light on our relationship now. It reads “I am struck by how sharing our weaknesses and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” I truly did not expect anything to come from my words and actions, but in that moment, in sharing my weakness and failure, something opened up and created space for nourishment in relationship.
We are not back to where we once were and we won’t ever be and I don’t regret that. We are in a new place, but it is a good place. This experience of failure continues to inform who I am becoming, and the regular practice of vulnerability – not yet a honed skill, is a desired goal, particularly in relationship and community. Through time and experience I realize that I have grown, where I have grown and where I can continue to grow. Knowing that failure and failing well play a key part of that growth.