Exploring Best Failures

Because failure can be so painful and emotionally triggering, we distance ourselves at all cost, finding ways to deflect, blame, or avoid. But in doing so, we miss out on one of the most powerful catalysts for professional and personal growth.

To be clear, not all failures are best failures. Most are uninteresting, simply not getting what we want, or thought we wanted. But some failures are more complex and meaningful. They involve acting on some core intention, the essence of what we believe or are trying to offer, and then hitting a proverbial wall- running into someone or something we didn’t expect or see coming. Best failures are painful in a special way. Their impact stays with us, altering our behavior and how we see the world. Best failures matter. They are inherently powerful and beckon us to examine them more closely.

In a 2013 post, I mused that just once, I would like to go to a conference that focused on best failures rather than best practices. I was tired of pretending that we had it all figured out, holding up programs as examples of excellence and superiority, with participants taking notes and hoping to replicate results. I knew then, and still know, that focusing on successes can only get us so far. Instead, if we are able to explore our most powerful failures, we can reap the many benefits, identifying structural errors and false assumptions that can release us from stagnation and stuckness, and lead us to growth and expansion.

So why are there no best failures conferences or symposia? Because failure is closely associated with feelings of shame and embarrassment, and getting too close can result in negative emotions and discomfort. But what if we could get some emotional distance and create space for holding up our best failures as opportunities for growth, learning, and innovation. Not just any failures, mind you, but the really powerful ones, the ones that will lead to new opportunities and expansion, the type of growth that we all need and crave.

Here is a process for tapping into the power of best failures. I suggest that you do this together with a friend or mentor, someone who can challenge and guide you, and perhaps share in the process along the way.

  • Identify best failures.

Remember that best failures are not about simple rejection or not getting what you want. They are symbolic stories, representing grand attempts to engage your mission or core contributions, going for it, throwing your heart and soul into something of importance, only to hit a wall. Best failures leave you reeling, profoundly disappointed, and in some way changed by the experience. Because so few failures are best failures, you will need some time to sort through your collection and identify those worthy of further exploration. Imagine yourself sorting through your closet, briefly examining each garment, deciding which to keep and which to give away. As you bring potential candidates into consideration, ask yourself whether it is a symbolic and important failure with lessons to reveal. If not, acknowledge its lack of significance, and decide to simply let it go.

  • Imagine if.

Once you have identified a best failure to work with, allow yourself to indulge in the exercise of rewriting histroy. How do you wish others had behaved differently, what ending would you have preferred? Acknowledge that this is the fantasy portion of your work; the place where most of us like to go, and stay. Take a moment to appreciate how it feels to go there, wishing and rewriting, yearning for someone to have done something differently. Now reflect on what you have learned or gained from this activity, and whether it is worthwhile to continue to focus on what could have been. Once you conclude that it is neither a good investment nor a path forward, note that it is clearly time to move on.

  • Alternate paths.

Now, hold up that same best failure and allow yourself to revisit your own behaviors leading up to the unwanted outcome. If you were to go back in time, knowing what you know now, how might you have done things differently and why? Without getting emotional, revisit the chain of events going back as far as you can, noting the various details and nuances to be modified, edited, or slightly tweaked, with each change leading to a different result or response. Acknowledge these variations as choices, and note your power in determining possible outcomes, even without altering another’s actions.  Reflect on this idea of power.  Synthesize what you have learned or discovered, and practice giving it voice- actually talking about it or describing it to someone you respect or care about. Feel your space expand.

  • Apply your insights.

Now apply these lessons to where you are now and consider how you might use them within your current or evolving context. Think of these insights as gifts that you are giving yourself, not from a place of blame or humiliation, but instead from a higher state of empowerment and growth- the version of you that lies ahead. What opportunities can you identify for putting these lessons and ideas into practice? How will you recognize their effectiveness? Take some time to imagine what it will feel like when you are honoring, or have honored these gifts. How might you expect others to respond?  What do you need to nurture or protect this best version of yourself? Feel this commitment take root.

Congratulations for your courage and commitment. In honor and recognition of the work you have done, and will continue to do, imagine receiving an invitation to serve as the keynote speaker for our very own Best Failures Symposium. Don’t get nervous, you have plenty of time to prepare your remarks, and the audience will be filled with only those who are committed to growth and learning. As you reflect on what you will share with fellow participants, allow yourself to put your insights into practice, making the most of the decisions you have as you live your life and do your work. Note how your choices affect you and others around you, and your ability to see and actualize opportunities for movement and growth. How has your story changed and how will it continue to evolve? Know that as you live boldly, you will have even more best failures to share.  These are the evidence of our courage and the keys to continued growth.

Our Gifts Are Not Our Own

IMG_2702As I sat on the small porch of a modest house waiting for my session to begin, I recalled the last time I had visited this lovely place, right after we had lost our best friend to a tragic car accident. We had come seeking a connection and left comforted by the knowledge that she had arrived safely on the other side. We had been given tacit permission to move on with our hurried lives. But now some 20 years later I was back, this time eager to slow life down and absorb the stillness.

Her drawing began with a broken line that gradually spread into a pencil, symbolizing my focus on writing and designing growth and rehabilitation. She shaded big blocks of brown for constructing programs, vibrant blues for connecting with people over the internet, and beautiful shades of healing throughout. The portrait was the birthday gift that I had given myself, but it had come with hidden costs. Before she could sketch my journey she had to establish her conduit, the individual responsible for guiding her drawing and providing commentary on my life.

She described an older woman who had passed when I was young, and I immediately thought of my paternal grandmother for whom my oldest daughter was named. A particularly strong woman succeeding boldly in a world of men, we had enjoyed a strong connection during her life and I was honored to be at her side when she passed. But despite my efforts to cling to her memory, she was clearly not the one.

How I tried to avoid the obvious- my other grandmother, my mother’s mother, a woman who I had barely thought about or spoke of in all these years. Even as her identity was pushed into focus, my mind rejected her presence, resenting her appearance, even mispronouncing her name. I was ashamed of my own reaction and listened with confusion as the medium emphasized this woman’s significance.

Did I know that she was a great writer, and that she was responsible for guiding my own gifts and the manuscript that I was so feverishly working on? Did I know that her relationship with my grandfather was actually loving and strong, rather than the tragic mistake that I had concluded.

No, I obviously knew nothing. And I reeled at the discovery.

The rest of the session had felt like a warm embrace with assurances that I was on the right path and that so many were proud of me.

But the biggest gift came later that evening. After first dismissing the medium’s details about my grandmother, my mother had called her sister to confer. To her surprise, she learned that my grandmother was indeed a gifted writer, although focusing her talents on penning beautiful letters, while longing to do more. When she was young she was the bell of the ball, beautiful and engaging. But after she was married she felt trapped by conventional life, yearning to travel and experience exciting adventures, left to read self-help books and live vicariously through the lives of her daughters.

My grandmother had felt stuck, just like so many women today. Although we try to stretch and grow and challenge ourselves, we are constrained by the expectations of others. But what was her life like compared to mine? Her options, her realities- even more restricting and limited. And when my daughters will someday view my choices through their lenses, what will they see, what assumptions will they make?

How wonderful that she should have a hand in my journey, rooting for me and my efforts to help others actualize their dreams and potential, serving as my guide, my angel, my muse.

Of all the gifts that I have been given, perhaps this is the greatest…. the knowledge that our gifts are not our own

Dorothy’s Gift

The moment of realization struck me like a lightning bolt.  The woman sitting on this bench before me had been in this very spot for several days, maybe even weeks?  I strained to remember when I had first noticed her, but couldn’t get past the weight in my throat as I acknowledged the obvious.  She was sleeping there, on this bench, in this lovely little park right in the middle of my neighborhood.

My cherished early morning walk had come to a halt as I stood there looking at her trying not to be noticed.  The impression was one of a mystical tree.  Draped in a dark green cloak with a peaked hood and flowing sleeves, she sat with her head down, all angles pointing to and merging with the earth.  Her legs were like thick tree trunks, completing the image of stillness, strength, nature.

Although I didn’t want to disturb her I knew that I had to acknowledge her presence and repent for the days that I had let slip by, lost in my own self.  I resumed walking and prepared to initiate conversation, or at least some respectable gesture.  As my steps approached her bench I uttered, “Good Morning,” and immediately regretted my words.

But a melodious voice echoed, “Good morning to you.”  I stopped to pivot, beholding the rising of the hood, and the whitest most lovely set of teeth parting in a warm smile.  In just a moment I took her all in- well kempt hair, healthy glowing skin, and a tiny diamond ring on clean and dainty fingers.

Despite my shock I continued conversation, confirming that she had been sleeping in the park, and inquiring about her safety and well-being. Her responses were light and reserved, hinting at circumstances and her decision to make the park her temporary home.  She alluded to domestic and mental health issues, plans to move to a shelter in Carolina, and only mild concerns about the cooling temperatures and impending weather.   She was clearly a woman with choices, a woman with a plan.

Feeling our conversation coming to a close I asked if there was anything I could bring her to make her stay more comfortable.  She dismissed my gesture with an airy wave and insisted, convincingly, that she had everything she needed.  I pressed on, determined to offer something of value.  When she finally agreed to some left-over chicken and perhaps a light blanket, I turned and quickly ran home, assuring her that I would be right back but secretly scared that I would be too late.

When I got home I made a beeline for the kitchen, wrapping food items with care, and placing them in a still perfectly functional backpack from the previous school year.  I sneaked up the stairs, trying not to draw my family’s attention as I frantically looked around, surveying the endless shelves and piles of stuff for worthy offerings.  I grabbed a Smithsonian magazine and a book of crossword puzzles unused by my children at camp.  And then I finally saw it, the perfect gift, making me giggle as I touched them one last time.  I lovingly placed my most wonderfully cozy and warm pair of socks into the bag.  They had been given to me by my husband, brought home from our family’s clothing store.   Indulgently unnecessary, they were the perfect gift for someone who had everything and wanted of nothing.  They were the perfect gift for my new friend Dorothy.

When I raced back to the park I was relieved to find Dorothy still on her bench, peaked hood down and re-rooted in the earth.  I experienced a rush of gratitude as she lifted her head once more and returned my greetings.  Like a child I described my offerings as I pulled each from the bag.  Only mildly feigning interest, she accepted my gifts and thanked me by name, sealing the exquisite moment of connection that I continue to cherish today.

Giving Thanks for My Name

I’ve always felt strongly about names.   A good name can provide you with a sense of history, direction and character. It grounds you while at the same time giving you wings.

My name- Mara- means many things.  As a child I first learned of its Hebrew meaning, “bitter.”  My Mother liked to tell me that the local Rabbi had tried to persuade her to choose a better name, even offering Miriam as a more suitable alternative.  He said that Mara was no name for the promise of a Jewish baby, but my mother had been adamant, and Mara I was.  Over the years I have searched for other more nuanced meanings of my name, hoping for something slightly more positive or inspiring. But somehow I always got stuck with the Biblical translation; that is, until I met the Sisters.

The moment I introduced myself things got weird.  “Hi, I’m Mara,” I said.  They had looked at me with interest, asking me to spell my name- M. A. R. A.    “What do you do?”- it was a seemingly innocent question posed with expectant eyes. I overflowed with enthusiasm, describing my then position at the University at Buffalo, brokering partnerships with area schools, working to support the promise of education.

Time stopped and the air grew fuzzy.  Why were they staring at me?  I could feel the weight of coincidence before it was revealed.  They had traveled from the Mara Region of Tanzania- spelled and pronounced exactly the same- and were seeking partners to help them build a school for girls.

Honestly, what were the odds?  It was Christmas day and the two nuns- Sister Janepha and Sister Agnes were last minute guests at my mother-in-law’s.  They explained that in rural Tanzania, where 80% of the population live, girls are traded into marriage at an early age, left to endure lives of suffering and hardship with no hope of upward mobility.  There, like in our own country, education is the only pathway to prosperity- but because there is not enough money, girls are forced to marry, as families look to their boys to invest their precious resources and hopes for the future.   By the end of their visit the Sisters had asked me to help them, or at least that’s what I recall.  As a mother of four young children (3 girls and 1 boy), their vision represented everything I believed in and was working towards.  And how could I ignore the significance of the name?

I’m still not sure what to make of this story. I have never been what you would call a religious person- or a fatalist- but it’s hard to deny the significance of our initial meeting or all that has since transpired.    So many gifts have been given and received since that Christmas day six years ago.  And there are so many stories yet to be told.

Since meeting the Sisters in 2007 I have visited the Mara region on two occasions, taking a bridge across the Mara River, gazing toward the Masai Mara Reserve, and being welcomed by countless countrymen who smiled when they heard my name and its significance.  I came back feeling so inspired that following my second trip in 2011 I did yet another internet name search.  This time I typed in “the name Mara in Africa” and thankfully the word “bitter” did not appear.  Instead, it said that in Africa people named Mara have a deep inner desire for love and companionship and want to work with others to achieve peace and harmony.  It also said that in Kiswahili, the National language of Tanzania, the name Mara means “a time.”

I know from my travels that time in Tanzania is thought of quite differently than it is here.  There, time is said to be elastic, meaning that it stretches and changes with the rhythms and demands of life. In Tanzania things take as long as they take.  Movement is not forced or imposed but crawls forward on its own accord, little by little -or as they say, “pole pole”).    As a person who has always been terribly impatient, trying to peek ahead and force movement at every turn, this discovery about my name still makes me giggle.

Since meeting the Sisters (Immaculate Heart Sistes of Africa), and helping to start ourTanzania project I have had many more “chance” encounters with amazing people who continue to enrich my life in so many ways. And so on this Thanksgiving weekend as I count my many blessings I would like to  thank those of you who have been part of the BTEP journey …. and my parents for giving me such a wonderful name….