In my last post, The Cornerstone Skill Few Talk About or Even Acknowledge, I argued that failing was the cornerstone skill, a skill that all other skills are built upon.  I went on to suggest that getting better at failing could benefit both individuals and organizations.

In this post,  I will talk about how individuals can get better at failing, as counterintuitive as that might sound.  First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that the framework and recommendations in this post came from a talk given at the Naropa Institute by Pema Chodron, the first American ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.  Her talk was called Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.  I cannot recommend it more highly.

As if failing to achieve what you wanted was not bad enough, concomitant with failing is the intensely uncomfortable, roiling emotions that you experience.  We often feel raw, vulnerable, ashamed and scared.  Sometimes we may even feel a sense of rage, a desire to want to lash out or seek revenge.

No one likes these feelings.  They can be awful beyond words.  All of us can, have, and will do almost anything to get away from them as quickly as possible.

As with any skill, getting better at something often involves figuring out what not to do. This is where Pema begins.  She notes that the typical response to those feelings of vulnerability, fear, and rage is to first, blame others or outside circumstances.  That might go on for awhile, but at some point, for many, the second response is to attack ourselves.

That first response is quite understandable and normal.  If we blame others and the situation then we can avoid some of those awful feelings.  I didn't play badly, I lost because of the referees.  Or I couldn't have succeeded on that project, because she was out to get me.  Or, that situation was so messed up, Christ Almighty couldn't have saved it.

If blaming others starts to run out of steam and that feeling of vulnerability starts to creep in, the second typical response is for your Inner Critic to rise up in mass attack.  It is the voice inside you that says, "You suck." "Others are finally seeing what 'I' knew all along." "Why don't you just give up?"

Pema's recommendation for failing better is to try to avoid both those typical responses.  Don't push anything away.  Get better at holding all the raw emotions in your heart. Become capacious and sit with the feelings...just as they are.

One approach she suggests for not getting overwhelmed by the feelings is to get curious about them.  What are the feelings, exactly?  Where do I feel them?  What is the story that goes along with these feelings?  Is this a new story or an old story?  Where did that story come from?

Why on earth would anyone want to get into the feelings around failure?  Isn't denial better?  What could possibly be served by going into painful feelings rather than avoiding them?

Pema's address outlined three real benefits of increasing our equanimity in the face of painful feelings.  First,  many addictions are the outgrowth of avoiding painful feelings.  Some are simple, relatively harmless addictions like constantly checking email, playing Candy Crush for hours or binge watching TV to avoid facing the feelings of failure about a situation or a job or a relationship or facing your own feelings of helplessness or lack of self-worth.

Of course there is nothing wrong with a little Candy Crush.  But simple avoidance strategies can turn into serious, life-threatening problems with drugs or alcohol or gambling.  Developing the ability to not have to push painful feelings away makes us less susceptible to addictions of all types.

A second reason for not pushing painful feelings away is that in the space of those feelings of vulnerability and loneliness is the chance for real heart-to-heart connection with others.

I love the photo with this post...the Japanese soccer player shaking the defeated French soccer player's hand with her other hand placed on her shoulder.  I am guessing the Japanese player has been where the French player is in the photo and understands what she is going through.

Sitting with painful feelings creates a receptivity...what the Japanese call mono no aware...empathy to all things. Or, if the use of foreign language expressions makes your skin crawl, in a similar vein, my favorite line in the movie Almost Famous is "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.

Finally, getting better at failing does not mean you are going to fail more.  Let's disabuse ourselves of that one right away.  It also does not mean you are going to be spared from failure and thus fail less.  The third reason for getting better at failure is so that the next time the failure wave rolls in...because roll in it won't knock you down as often or for as long.  That means more of your inner CPU is available for getting right this thing you obviously cared enough about to be doing in the first place or learning from what went wrong.

My next post will talk about the role of organizations here and why suggesting that organizations help their people fail better does not make you a candidate for the funny farm.

Please share your thoughts on failing or failing better or the Japanese expression mono no aware or the movie Almost Famous below.