Destigmatizing Failure

Every once in awhile, I amaze myself. I am amazed at the lengths I will go to in order to succeed at something I decide is important. And I am amazed at how long it takes to admit failure.

“Fail early and often” is a mantra among innovators, yet it is something I have not quite embodied. I still have a twinge of jealousy at the apparent nonchalance of hipsters who can have a “Meh. No big deal.” attitude when something goes not-as-planned.

Yesterday was the go/no-go decision day on a project I had a put a lot of enthusiasm and effort into, over what proved to be too aggressive a timeline for promotion. I just didn’t have the stomach to move forward with the additional financial risk and additional promotional efforts, and I made the call to pull the plug. On the one hand it is a relief. Losses have been capped at time, money already put down, and my pride at having put something out there that will not, in fact, happen as I promised.

On the other hand, I really don’t like dealing with the cleanup and the aftermath of starting over.

Perhaps Howard Schultz of Starbucks has some wisdom on this subject from the recent #RaceTogether campaign. Oh, it looks like he has already moved on to a different cause, paving over the embarrassment of the #RaceTogether failure by partnering with Oprah on a four-year college initiative for employees. Another true opportunity to inspire…missed.

This is how my morning went:

First, a few moments of self-pity. I allowed it.

Today I heard the sound of my niece playing the piano. With no accompanying video image, I was free to let the sounds carry me into my imagination of who might be creating them. I was moved by the dynamics, the swells and retreats, full of feeling and understanding of something longing to be conveyed. I heard another clip, this time with her singing voice accompanying herself.

I was brought to tears. The purity, the beauty, the fearlessness – fear not even occurring to her in her perfect love – reminded me that I have done sacred work in this life. I have given children the gift of learning to make their own music. I was too caught in my own perfectionism, my own judgments, my own need to have everything be a certain way, to behold the truth and beauty of what I was doing, and to stand in the strength of it. I was blind, and as I wept this morning, I saw a glimpse of something, while I felt my grief. I felt what I gave up. I felt where I was too weak to go on. I felt the love I walked away from. I felt how I – the ego identity – was too small for the magnificence of what was flowing through me.

And the only thing left for me to do is get up. To find something to celebrate, even in the full feeling of my own grief, and walk forward into this day. The sun shines brightly through the scrim of clouds. The droplets of rain hang heavy on the petals and leaflets, sparkling light tiny stars misplaced in a daytime scene.

Sometimes there is only grief, and the way the sun light shines just so, to take us through a morning.

Then, I devised these two ways of converting the “ick” feeling of aversion towards failure (or maybe loss is more accurate, but since “l” is one of my initials, a word beginning with “f” works better):

Giving myself the fanciest “F” ever:

IMG_4921I mean, when we say “celebrate failure”, do we really mean that? And if so, why don’t we see more images of the experience of celebrating failure? I’m not talking about winning versus losing, or committing a crime against someone. I’m talking about attempting something, derived from your own imagination of what’s a lofty goal, and simply failing to achieve it. Let’s see more of that process being shared, shall we?

For me, art is that practice every single time. When I face the blank page, I face the chance to fall short of what I consider “good” to be. And that sticky feeling that comes up? Every single time? That’s what keeps most of us from making any mark at all on the page. That discomfort of not knowing if you’re doing it right. It never really goes away. But the skill I’ve been building? I’m getting better, little by little, at feeling my discomfort, and making the next mark. Sometimes I move quickly, with confident actions and not much resistance. But a lot of the time, it feels sticky. It feels like I don’t know what I’m doing. And I keep making a mark. Or I step back and let it dry. But the gift of my art practice, at this point, is I’ve made the stickiness my friend. I’m OK with it.

So I figured I would try this with other forms of failure in my life.


To really destigmatize this particular F word.

Bring it out of the closet, so to speak.

The last thing I did: I wrote a fake letter of congratulations, addressed to me from a particular college professor of mine (who, I was a little embarrassed to learn from a google search, died at age 58 in 2012. Wow.) who misread my cry for help during junior year as standard procrastination or writer’s block. In a meeting in his office, he dissuaded me from my pleas to let me off the hook and convinced me to go ahead and write my senior honors thesis already. What I was secretly asking – silently begging – for was permission not to drag myself to the Harvard Medical School campus every free afternoon of my final year of college to slice up mice tails and look under microscopes and pretend to be interested in all of that work. There was a whole world of subjects I could be studying, and PLEEEEEASE would someone in a position of authority in this institution just say to me, “It’s OK. You don’t have to go to medical school. You don’t have to do anything. Just wander and explore and really fall in love.” But no. I walked out of his office, head hanging, jaw probably clenched, and a little over a year later, had three additional words after my AB degree on my diploma: magna cum laude. Thanks, buddy.

SO the fake letter I wrote to myself today (from him to me) went something like this (you’ll have to imagine it on official Harvard Department of Biochemical Sciences letterhead):

Dear Lisa:
It’s been almost twenty years since we last talked, sitting face to face in my office, in the Fairchild Building at Harvard. It was in that meeting that I dismissed your concerns about feeling ambivalent toward your senior honors thesis in Biochemical Sciences, and told you to suck it up and write it already. I now recognize that I facilitated yet another step in your own soul denial and derailed your pursuit of your real passions for at least another decade. Oops. I guess I was just doing my job.
I was delighted to hear of your recent decision to pull the plug on your first attempt at reaching the growing population of physicians who are miserable in their jobs, contemplating (a) a job on Wall Street, (b) a date with their favorite bottle of non-narcotic sedatives, (c) applying for a job in retail sales, or (d) testifying before Congress to enact a law to make their jobs slightly more tolerable. You had great enthusiasm and fervor in your efforts. One might even say you were overzealous and overconfident in your ability to reach this “low-hanging fruit” population, wallowing in despair, with your wide-eyed message of hope. You raced to the starting line, and never looked back.
But when the time came for you to make a “go-no-go” decision on a financial risk you had taken on alone (haha! so glad you’re doing that again!), I am so glad to know that you found the courage to say “No.” For you, this is big. And that’s the thing. Courage for you looks like weakness to another. Courage in this moment may look like weakness in another moment. For you, in this moment, with so much at stake in your heart and in the world, being able to give up this time, celebrate your learning, and regroup with what you now know (along with what you still don’t know), is big.
So I celebrate you! I celebrate your being one failure closer to the fulfillment of your soul’s purpose on this planet.

Then I made a list of “what I now know” as a result of this experience, and “what’s next”. That’s when I stopped because I started to sound all life coach-y. I decided it would be much more kind to allow a complete day to pass without trying to “find the lesson” in this particular unfortunate outcome. That, in itself, is deep practice for me.

So here I sit. In the fact of this thing called failure. Still not loving that I have to clean it up. But hopefully loving one corner of myself a little bit more. And (maybe, possibly) looking forward to more practice at this, earlier and more often.


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