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What do you do with failure?

September 29, 2010

Earlier this week, as I entered my last week in this job, I was hit by a giant tsunami wave of my own failure.

In a series of meetings, I was reminded again and again of all of the things I wanted to accomplish, back in the early days when I was fresh and enthusiastic and just a tad idealistic in this job. New staff kept bringing up the things we should be doing around here, and almost every time they did, I had a flashback reminding me of when I was saying exactly those same things – back when I believed I could change the world. And now, six years later, I’m walking away with the realization that many of those things never happened.

Walking out of those meetings, I felt beaten down and discouraged. My gremlins had a hey-day with this information, dancing a jig and chanting “your team is just as dysfunctional as it always was and you were SO sure you could change the dynamic and conquer the world. And that social marketing plan that you sold to the board and got all that funding for? Yeah, it fell flat on its face when your relationship with that consulting company fell apart. You’re walking away with egg on your face on that one. Oh… and what about that media tour that never happened?”

And then those ugly gremlins got even more nasty… “You suck. Big time. Six years you spent in this job, and just what have you got to show for it? A bunch of good intentions and only minimal successes. You’re going to fail in this consulting business you want to start. And then you’ll go broke and your kids will hate you. Big ol’ loser.”

Blech. What a ball of crap I felt like for the next few hours.

But then the words of Palker Palmer came back to me. “…as pilgrims must discover if they are to complete their quest, we are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.”

With those words ringing in my ear, I looked those gremlins right in the eye and said “Hold it right there. Stop your partying. You’re only telling half of the truth and you know it.”

And then I turned to the list of failures and disappointments and said “Okay failure, what have you got to teach me today?”

With the gremlins slinking away into the corner, failure gently sat me down and said “Remember – I’m here as a companion to success. I do not come alone – we work hand in hand as your teachers. Just as you have been going over the list of things you have accomplished in this job, you must also review the list of the ways you’ve failed. It’s the only way you’ll step into the next part of your journey with greater strength and self-awareness.”

One by one, I looked over the list for the things I needed to learn. Some of the things that showed up were:

  • I cannot change the world single-handedly. It’s like pushing a bus up a hill alone.
  • I was not always true to my own leadership abilities, trying instead to wiggle into a mold that didn’t fit.
  • Sixteen people is too many people to lead single-handedly – at least for me. I don’t want to do that again. I want meaningful relationships.
  • I don’t think I ever want to lead remote staff again. It’s hard, especially when there are conflicts.
  • I am better at leadership, idea-generation, visioning, etc. than I am at human resource management. I get bogged down with details and meaningless conflict.
  • I need to trust my instincts more. I knew there were problems in the social marketing plan, and yet I forged ahead and ignored my gut on that one.
  • If people don’t want to be led, not even I can change their minds.
  • I am not good at maintaining routine. When things start to feel like the same ol’, same ol’ year in and year out, I lose my energy quickly.
  • When I had to step away from the creative work I loved and into more of an administrative role, I lost some of my enthusiasm. More creativity, less administration.

Truthfully, I could come up with an even longer list of the things I learned from the success I had in this job, but that list is for another post. Right now I’m learning from failure’s wisdom, and once I took the self-judgement out of the equation, it was a good and healthy learning.

There are elements of this job I no longer want to do. More importantly, there are things that I really shouldn’t do if I am to be true to myself. Another Parker Palmer quote helps me see the wisdom in this clarity.

One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess – the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

Note: I welcome your comments, but would prefer not to get a bunch of comments trying to convince me of my successes in this job. I am pretty confident of those things. This post is more about the OTHER things I had to learn than it is about me saying “poor me – somebody please stroke my back and remind me how wonderful I am”. Does that make sense?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2010 10:11 am

    Seeing the lessons in the failures is a success in and of itself. So there! 😉

    I have been watching Ken Robinson on TED talks, speaking about schools killing creativity, and how we train people to become resistant to failure, to seek out only success, and to therefore, stay safe and never ever make anything knew.

    It is our willingness to fail, to be wrong, that will bring about revolutions.


  2. September 29, 2010 1:04 pm

    Wonderful lessons to have learned… learning them really is what life is all about.

  3. September 29, 2010 1:19 pm

    Parker Palmer writes with such tender and vulnerable, yet courageous honesty about his own process and the wisdom gleaned from attending to his depressions and shadow. His work, Courage to Teach, is the bedrock of my consulting-coaching with educational leaders, as he gives the most accurate visceral description of what it means to teach, always grounded in a spiritual frame. Let Your Life Speak and The Hidden Life have been roadmaps for helping me create lifework congruent with my nature. Little tomes, rich in his practical, hard won wisdom.

    Mining my failures, facing my demons, owning my messes…this is what you and I and from the comments, I sense most of your readers signed on for, though at times, I wonder “What was I thinking!?!” and “Do I have what it takes?” Allora….

  4. September 29, 2010 1:59 pm

    Routine=Death. I can hardly bear to put my socks in the same drawer for too long.

    Your new adventure is beginning! I am so happy for you!

    Keep banishing gremlins.

    Lots of love.

  5. September 29, 2010 4:58 pm

    I hear you!
    In fact just last night I wrote a post somewhat along these lines.
    We need to stop feeling ‘less than’ when we come to realise that we want something different, or we want to to it a different way. When we suddenly see something isnt working we should just proudly step up and say whoopsie and then change without shame.
    Good on you Heather!!

  6. September 29, 2010 5:32 pm

    I imagine that the job taught you a lot and that you have grown during those years. Just a thought — not terribly relevant to this post, I guess.

  7. September 29, 2010 5:48 pm

    I was all set to write a comment and then I hit the last paragraph of your post. Well, honestly, I was going to say that it sounds that you learned an awful lot in that job. When emotions are running high, it’s easy to see the peaks and the valleys. You made you decision awhile ago based on very solid ground. I would go with that, or go back to that if you need the aid of a spring board to help you make your next leap.

  8. Renee permalink
    September 30, 2010 6:28 pm

    I love the quote from Parker Palmer. I had never thought of burnout as trying to give what you do not possess. Thank you for that!

  9. Mary Ellen permalink
    October 1, 2010 5:14 pm


    Thank you for speaking your truths. I can relate to your journey although I have not been brave enough or bold enough to step out as you have.
    Your creative side comes through in spades in your postings and your blog. Be true to this part of you and be happy that you have chosen a new path. Note everyone can cope with the binds of an organizational leadership role.

    You don’t need a “good luck” for you will excell in your new self directed path.

    Mary Ellen

  10. October 21, 2010 10:05 am

    late to the party
    thank you for the heart food

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