Coded for Error

If I had my life to live over, I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.” – If I Had My Life to Live Over” by Nadine Stair

Fond farewell to Rev. Patrick O’Neill, the minister at our Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel for the past several years who conducted his final service yesterday. He is considered one of the finest speakers in the denomination and has left a bounty of inspired insight. Fortunately, the chapel has shared many of his talks in both written and recorded formats.

Of course, my favourite are his own takes on embracing failure. I myself have spoken on the topic (twice when the chapel was waiting for Patrick to come in as the new minister) at Rosslyn Hill Chapel. He recently added a fine one titled “Coded for Error” (excerpts)…

  • “Marcus Tulius Cicero’s essays on old age. His 6 ‘Perennial Mistakes of Humanity’…Mistake #2 on Cicero’s list, ‘The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.’…Thus it is to be human, we are mistake makers by nature and by stubborn habit of spirit.
  • The Bard had it right: ‘To err is human’. One way to describe our species is to say that we are the mistake makers of the universe…We learn by ‘trial and error’, not by ‘trial and rightness’ or ‘trial and triumph’…Progress requires error. Eventually, we put our hands on enough hot stoves until we figure it out.”
  • “Benjamin Hooks once put it, ‘The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching our goals. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled. It’s a calamity never to dream. It’s not a disaster to not capture your ideal. It’s a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It’s not a disgrace to reach for the stars and fail. It’s a disgrace never to try. Failure is no sin. Low aim is the sin.”
  • Aware as we are of our human imperfection. Understanding as we do the limitations of our fallible and all too mortal nature, we are all of us here trekking along the best we can seeking to fill in the holes in our lives with as much understanding and knowledge and love as we can accumulate, as we can share, as we can give back to each other.”
  • “In the high achiever society, where many of us spend our days, there is a kind of tyrannical if delusional self-imposed perfectionism that drives a lot of people. The price of super-achievement means for a lot of people that they neither tolerate nor make room for even the smallest mistakes in their lives or in the lives of those they claim to love. Such perfectionism would be laughable if it were not so deadly to one’s self-esteem, to one’s relationship to a partner, to one’s children, to one’s joy in living.”
  • Islam has a saying that ‘Perfection belongs only to God.’ In observance of that maxim, in ancient Persia, where rug weaving reached its highest art form weavers routinely wove a single, intentional flaw into every rug as a reminder that perfection is Allah’s alone. European sculptors of the Renaissance era often intentionally chiselled a tiny chip into beautiful works of art for the same reasons.”

Thank you Patrick for your legacy of blessed imperfection.

Embracing the Deep Dark Place

Hannah Lawton Atlantic Crossing


  • “Not many people in life get to go to that deep, dark place, where you feel broken, helpless and insignificant. The place where everything seems to be against you. But rowing the Atlantic did that for me, it broke me down and I had to build myself back up. Which in itself is something I would strive to do again." – Hannah Lawton

One of the coaches cheering her rowers on this past weekend, Hannah Lawton, also knows the challenge…and failure of an Atlantic crossing by row boat. I’ve had to pleasure to get to know and work with Hannah with British Pararowing. She shared with me some of her reflections on her own ‘happy failure’.

  • “Out in the middle of the Atlantic, it’s an obsolete place. Boredom strikes on a daily basis, thoughts revolve around your head…past experiences, future ambitions, lessons learnt, feelings felt, why, when, where. It’s a cauldron of what ifs and future plans. Only to be dropped with a sudden thump as soon as you get off your tiny ocean rowing boat that had been your home for the last 4 months and you become overwhelmed by the wealth of people who were supporting you and the sheer emotion of seeing family and friends for the first time since the fog horn went on the start line.”

You would think that nearly 100 days of rowing would at least provide the dividend of unprecedented fitness…

  • “There were niggles for weeks after, niggles that made it hard to walk, let alone do anything else! But it was only when I got back into training that I noticed the true proportion of what the Atlantic had done to my body. It can be fixed, don’t get me wrong. But I’m talking about power, stability and strength. All of which seems to of been lost. General day to day work I hadn’t really noticed a change. Back on the ergo however and in the weights room, massive changes had occurred. I felt weaker than I ever had before.”

But what captivated me the most was her articulation of the very of the challenge…

  • “For a competitive person in a competitive environment it’s an endless fear of being judged, put aside because you aren’t hitting the target scores and above all the negative voice inside you that says why are you even bothering. But the struggle goes on.”

Power of Non-Attainment


Some else who sometimes lost is Olympic champion, Adam Kreek (thanks Ben). His TED talk above provides some great turns of phrase on the embracing failure theme –

  • Power of Non-Attainment: “If we fail happily and we fail more effectively, we gain more self-confidence, we have greater self-esteem, we have more connection to each other.”
  • Seek Failure: “Jake [Adam asked his teammate], How are you so successful?’…[Jake replied] ’I seek failure…Every week we train every day Monday through Saturday and I will willing pick out on workout where I will push myself through my known limit. And I will embrace failure. In fact, my body will fail on me. And for the rest of the week, I will know what this limit is…and I will hover below it. And in fact, the great point of growth occurs right below your limit’.”
  • Capacity Bubble: “Everyone of us has a ‘capacity bubble’. A capacity to achieve, to find success, to find fulfilment, to find happiness in life. We can choose to stay in the center of our capacity bubble and slowly let that bubble shrink. Or we can hover around the edges of our capacity bubble and let that bubble grow. And if you’re impatient and you want that bubble to grow as fast as possible, what should you do? You should be right at the edge of your capacity bubble…”
  • Happy Failure: “…And how do you know where your edge is? You fail. You don’t just fail…you’re happy about it.”

I’ve included Kreek’s two charts illustrating the “capacity bubble” and the “happy failure matrix” below. The “capacity bubble” echoes my own theme of “dream bubbles”. They drive you the greater things, they are meant to be broken (for happy and for sad reasons), and the greatest growth occurs not in achieving them, but just short of achieving them.

This weekend I will be up at Nottingham cheering on the best of British rowing who will be pulling hard to break through their limits at British National Rowing Championships (including Ben). If you fail, may it be a happy one.


Adam Creek - Capacity Bubble


Adam Kreek - Happy Failure Matrix

Sometimes You Lose

Gapingvoid - good fight


  • What can I say? Sometimes you lose, sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes it’s worth it, but only you can decide.”  – Hugh MacLeod

Happy Birthday Hugh.  Keep fighting the good fight.

Happy Failure Day

International Failure Day


"’How do I get rid of the fear?’ Alas, this is the wrong question…No, the right question is, ‘How do I dance with the fear?’ Fear is not the enemy. Paralysis is the enemy.” – Seth Godin

Today is International Failure Day!

A while back Seth posted a piece called “Happy Wowday” where he advocated having a day to celebrated doing extraordinary things…

Halloween gives you permission to dress up. April Fools, a chance to play a prank. What if there was one day of the year where you had permission to do things that made people say, ‘wow’… What if you focused and practiced and got your nerve up and leaned way over the edge, just one day of the year? If you could get out of your comfort zone for a few hours in a way that benefitted and delighted people you care about.”

That naturally got me thinking that ‘what if there was a day called “Failure Day’?” Where everyone was encouraged to try something of merit, but they always figured they would fail at. Failure Day would be the day you were explicitly given permission to have that failure. And if you did fail, it would be all part of the celebration, event and moment. But I suspect that even amidst the many failures it would inspire, so to would there be many first steps, disillusioned fears and personal insights that would eventually take people much farther than they otherwise would have gone.

Well now there is…so get dancing.

If Darkness Could Speak

  • To be really faced with the abyss means that poetry comes into the mind all the time, as if darkness could speak” – Clive James

National Poetry Day today. And few poets have taken more inspiration from the topic of the ultimate failure in life, of life, than Clive James. A recent interview in the Sunday Times, “Trust me: you won’t make a living from poetry till you’re dying”, highlighted the psychological, creative and even commercial upsides impending death brings to the poet. In that piece (and many other interviews since) he speaks candidly about the impact of his pending mortality brought on by terminal leukaemia. As the piece notes, “Terminal illness has helped Clive James write the finest – and most successful – verse of his 60-year literary career.” And, all poets will appreciate this quote from Dylan Thomas that James’ cites embracing the inevitability of commercial failure in poetry: “The lack of money continues to pour in.”

Remembering Death

Steve Jobs


  • Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs

Someone who didn’t beat cancer was the immortal Steve Jobs (passing away on this day 4 years ago). Even the courage of how he faced his death brought inspiration to many. Including James Bareham who posted the piece “Remembering Steve Jobs: Mortality Inspires Me”.

  • Mortality is basis for the natural order of things. Nothing on our planet or in our (known) universe is immortal; even the stars will ‘die’. According to some astronomers, the Earth has got about another billion years left before our ever expanding sun boils away our oceans and eventually makes the surface molten once again—which gives a whole new meaning to ‘killing the planet.’ Having a healthy sense of mortality reminds us that life, all life, is precious. It should never be squandered or taken for granted. In fact, a regular reminder of our own mortality may just push us to make decisions for ourselves; to give us the courage to lead the life that we choose, and not the life chosen for us by others.

Sometimes that mortality is more an imminent throw of the dice rather than a looming inevitability. Roy Scranton, drawing on his insights as a reservist confronting both the Iraq War and the Katrina natural disaster, also makes an ardent appeal for everyone to embrace their mortality in his New York Times piece “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”…

  • “The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like todayI found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s ‘Hagakure,’ which commanded: ‘Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.’ Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. ‘If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,’ wrote Tsunetomo, ‘he gains freedom in the Way.’”

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