Commencement season again and the theme of embracing failure will definitely be making it into plenty of valedictory and honorary speeches. And if there is anyone who has milked such a theme, it is Pema Chonron. Not only did she make it the topic of her Naropa University address, but she also published the talk into a book (with each page being about 2 sentences) and then also posted it on YouTube (and instead of just posting it, she chopped it up into a dozen short clips).

I bought “Fail Fail Again Fail Better” because I consider buying almost any book on failure and I was sold by the imprimatur of the “Forward” [sic] written by Seth Godin (the best part of the book). As much as I’m loathe to criticise a Buddhist nun, it is really a weak treatment.  But, here are a few excerpts that I did appreciate…

  • Fail again, fail better. It’s like how to get good at holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart. Or how to get good at welcoming the ‘unwelcome’…There are usually two ways that we deal with [failure]. We either blame it on someone else or some other – the organisation, our boss, or partners, whatever…The other really common thing…is that we feel really bad about ourselves and label ourselves ‘a failure’…Out of that very same space of vulnerability and rawness and the failing of failure can come our best human qualities or bravery, kindness, the ability to really care about each other, the ability to reach out to each other.”

She also recounts a fun story of an old man who responds to the fortunes of life with unflappable equanimity. First, the prized horse of the old man and his family runs away. The wife is horrified and exclaims, “This is the worst thing ever!” The old man replies, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” The next day, the horse returns with a mare. The wife proclaims, “This is the best thing ever.” The old man replies, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Then the new horse breaks their son’s leg…”worst thing…”…”maybe yes, maybe…” And this goes on and on with each piece of bad news leading to a silver lining and each piece of good news leading to a complication or problem.

Was this a good treatment of “embracing failure”? Maybe yes, maybe no.

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