“How to Fail Better (2.0)”

Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
If I had to select one quality, one personal characteristic that I regard
as being the most highly correlated with success, whatever the field,
I would pick the trait of persistence. Determination.
The will to endure to the end, to get knocked down seventy times
and get up off the floor saying, ‘Here comes number seventy-one.’”
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable
but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
“If you want things to stay the same, you’ll have to do things differently.”
“If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done,
then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.” (Texas saying)
Hot, Flat, and Crowded


When I put together a sermon with stories you have given me, I feel a bit like Tom Sawyer who persuaded his friends what a privilege it would be for them to paint his fence while he had fun watching them do the work.

So…thank you for writing this sermon!

Mostly, I try to paint my own fence, not to do this too often; but you know it is a privilege for me to receive dozens of responses to my request to hear your stories of failings, and what you learned from them.

And, when I’ve done this in the past, you can hear a pin drop as people hear with loving care the stories that are told. Your stories are sacred stories.

Hearing stories of failure is rather like hearing confession. Confession, you know, is a sacrament for good reason (and, if you do not have someone to hear your confession, well, Megan and I can do that). Stories of our failings, it’s clear to me, linger and their sting is remembered…maybe or maybe not with feelings of sin or guilt. Sin, remember, is translated from the Greek word, hamartia (nearly the only theological Greek I ever learned) and hamartia means, “missing the mark,” as a arrow misses the mark. Well, in this house of all sinners and saints, we all have missed, do miss and will miss the mark a lot.

I gave the overview of this topic last week. To succeed more, I said, we need to fail more. As well, we need to fail better – preferably modest and informative failures that we can learn from.

So thank you for entrusting your stories to me. And if you didn’t get a chance to tell me, well, the doors to our confessional are open anytime.

I received more responses than I can repeat, and so – even though this sermon is long (you are nearly as long winded as the guy who usually writes these sermons!), I’ve edited and paraphrased a lot. For my failures of transcription, I apologize.

We begin:

Early failures – dropped out of college twice, finished after 6 ½ years; frowned on by family and friends. Got job as rocket scientist, then 90% of company laid off. Lesson: government-funded private industry jobs are never permanent, even putting a man on the moon. Learned programming, got good at it, new career. Lesson – be flexible if you are not wealthy. Tried 3 startups, all failed. Lesson: Do not think mature pragmatic focused adults are in charge – anywhere.

Now I’m an executive, big tech company doing good things in the world. Lesson: stand up strongly, but carefully, for your beliefs, learn to speak well, keep eyes open for opportunities to help others (they cannot find you, or they already would have).
– – – –
I turned in my college Anthropology paper late and the professor gave me an F. The professor also refused to sign the forms to allow me to be an Anthropology major, so I waited for him to go on sabbatical. I graduated in Anthropology, went on for a Ph.D. and taught it for the remainder of my career. When I ran into my old professor nemesis, he would tell people how proud he was of my achievements and his role in them – the BASTARD!
– – – –
Some of you made a distinction between mistakes and failures.

Mistakes I’ve made often feel like failures. In the first grade, a very strict and ancient nun caught me trying to cover up/fix a mistake. We were not allowed to erase…it had to be “right and “correct” from the get-go. I still can feel the shame and fear I felt when she angrily told me, “Your paper will be hung on Sister Margaret’s bulletin board and everyone in the school will see your mistake.”

One thing I’ve loved about getting older is my appreciation of the “grey.” I delight in getting that earlier monkey off my back, feeling freedom in not knowing, judging less harshly, being less critical, allowing for mistakes and blunders. This is easier to do with acquaintances, friends and family than it is with my life partner!

One of the things that has helped me is the profound generosity of some people I have directly affected with my mistakes. Following a medication error with a child that shook me to my core even though the child was OK, a mother touched my arm in the middle of my repeated apologies and said, “It’s OK. You’re only human.” This still brings tears to my eyes.
– – – –
(This reminded me of the first same sex wedding I performed here on this chancel, a couple who had been together decades. I began the ceremony by apologizing and saying how sorry I was that it had taken so long to make it legal…when one of the brides patted me gently and said, “There, there, John…it wasn’t your fault!”)
– – – –
One of you recalled that on Sesame Street Big Bird used to sing, “Everyone makes mistakes, oh yes they do./Your father and your mother and your brother and sister, too./Everyone makes mistakes,/So why can’t you?
And the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Failures in the kitchen:

When my grandma went into a nursing home, we found the Davenport Presbyterian Cookbook with recipes by parishioners. We laughed when we noticed grandma’s handwriting next to one entry, “Don’t make this. She’s a pig.”

A few years later, I saw a recipe in the paper for “Acorn Squash with Cranberries and Port.” Sounded great. It was an unmitigated disaster. A decade or so later I saw another recipe for “Acorn Squash with Cranberries and Port.” I made it and it was just as bad as the first time! From then on, I followed my grandmother and began to write in my cookbooks. Successes, failures, modifications, dates and anecdotes. I hope it will be a source of amusement for my daughter. “Don’t make this. She’s a pig.”
– – – –

Job failures:

I stick to the startup environment for a reason. Working for a few years then moving on is the spice of life.
Once I had a job where the word “innovation” was in my job title and appeared 6 times in the job description. I started cross team meetings with engineering groups that have never talked before. We innovated! We were extremely successful and accomplished in 18 months what they expected to take 3 years.

This was my downfall: I was considered subversive and banned from innovating and setting up cross team functions.
You can tell this stung because he quotes the email he got from his boss: “You are not here to innovate the company. You are here to assist in development of a product. This letter will be placed in your permanent file.”

In a 360 review I received high rankings from co-workers and subordinates, but my boss’s rating of me was so low, it was off the charts. I saw the writing on the wall and soon left.

Someone looking at my career will say that its highlight was being the designer of a product that will sell 25 billion portion packs a year. I look at that as my biggest failure. The personal failure will overshadow the technical success.
– – – –

More academic failures:

In college I was in French immersion. We were required to watch film strips that featured Monsieur Bertin who was an “importeur d’herb.” (an importer of perfume) We decided to make an alternate film strip, a spoof featuring Monsieur Bertin as an importeur d’herb (marijuana)! We gave roles to the other students, dressed up in ridiculous costumes; I even fell off the wing of a private airplane whose owner had given me permission. I created many bags of oregano to use as pot, had a friend be my assistant in a scanty red dress and high heels. Madame Simone had a huge pot party in one of the dorms. Our film strip was shown to the entire school, everyone loved it. But at the end of the semester I got an F. But really I had to learn what a whole lot of people do their first semester at college – you had to study!”

What do you suppose other people are preaching about this morning?
– – – –
My doctoral project failed. It simply didn’t accomplish my anticipated goal. Yet, by my careful evaluation of it, I earned the degree anyway. The examining board was well satisfied. We all learned something from the failure.
– – – – –
One parishioner told me that she has failed on numerous occasions at choosing front-loading washing machines. And she gave me reviews of every one. “Kenmore…piece of crap.” If any of you are in the market, I’ll let you know who to talk to.

Not only choosing front-loading washers but regular failures: burned food, lost keys, kids who do stupid things (and I don’t know how to help them); dogs that don’t behave themselves.
When my husband and I go hiking, we get lost 50% of the time.

What I really want to mention is that I think our legal/insurance systems profit greatly from failure…when we fail big, they win big. Divorce, malpractice, liability for everything imaginable. This discourages even reasonable risks!

Then there is the educational system with so much based on test scores. Really, does that make for risk takers? It rewards mostly the people who are most risk averse and study their butts off to do well or have the memory or deciphering skills to figure out what the heck the teacher is asking. This is not teaching kids to take risks, to explore who they are, to follow their passions.
– – – –
I was driving to Buffalo to visit a friend. It was a beautiful day, my first day of summer vacation. There was a confusing intersection in Albany but I was driving north, having a good time, until several hours later I discovered that I should have been driving west. When I finally arrived, my friend said, “I forgot to tell you when you get to Albany you have to follow the signs to Buffalo.”

My takeaway: Maybe….to listen to the voice on the GPS (though she still annoys me immensely)…and to find the humor in my mistake. Just writing this makes me smile because it’s a perfect example of how I can be so very, very sure that I am right…when maybe, just maybe, I’m not.
– – –
The grandeur of willful ignorance can be awesome.
– – –
I don’t consider things that I try that do not succeed as failures because I learn from them. They may not succeed as I hoped, but they succeed in teaching me something. As Thomas Edison said, “I am suspicious of anything that works the first time.”
– – – –
Another job failure but this time from the management side:

In my first job as a manager I had 30 people reporting to me.and 30 evaluations to do. One woman was very good at her job but also very judgmental. This was annoying and hurtful to other employees and I felt it important to include in the evaluation. Unfortunately I didn’t think it through very well and it didn’t occur to me that I should mention this to her face-to-face before including it in a written appraisal. Needless to say she was furious and spread the word just how unfair I was as a manager. Now more than 20 years later I can say that was one of my professional failures that taught me a lot about my responsibilities as a manager.
– – – –
My first assignment at a high-level firm was to invest 15 million dollars. On day one the stock went down 35%. I lost 5 million dollars on my first day! The stock recovered and worked out in the end, but that first day was hard.
– – – –
At Tufts summer school I signed up for World History, B.C. to World War II. After one or two lectures, there was a pop quiz. I got an F! First one ever. I was devastated. After class Professor Abbot stopped me as I was trying to escape. My reaction must have been evident as he counseled me not to take the results too seriously. He explained he had a policy of throwing out the worst grade when he averaged at the end of the semester. The quiz was intended to get our attention and guide our study. I’ve never forgotten him. (But what was the cause of the Peloponnesian Wars, huh?)
– – – –
In October of 1967, my freshman year of college, the Red Sox were in the playoffs. I was in a Speech class and assigned to write a persuasive speech. I decided to begin my comedy career giving a speech on why the entire class of Forsyth Dental Hygienists should leave the speech class and go over to Fenway and support our team. It was a major bomb. I got an F…I was not that funny. Everyone heard about my big failure. I was a failure as a comedian. Oh well. It was the only F I ever got…I am, however, a pretty damn good Dental Hygienist!
– – – –

Another kitchen failure:

My husband wanted to taste the molten sugar syrup he’d made, so he stuck his finger in and then couldn’t get the burning stuff off because it was so sticky.

And (on the cover of the order of service ) Mum’s Lentil Loaf which, uh, neglects to mention lentils anywhere in the recipe.
– – – –
I wanted to make a fancy dinner for some friends, one of whom was a vegetarian. I called my mom and asked her how to make vegetable quiche. She said it was really easy, but not to bother making my own crust: just go to the grocery store and buy one. So I did: which is how I ended up serving a gorgeous, perfectly baked pepper-and-onion quiche in a graham cracker crust to my vegetarian friend.

Quiche is now one of my go-to specialties…. But I’ve managed to learn from my mistake!

(When I read that one, I couldn’t figure out what the failure was, so I asked and, well, I guess a graham cracker crust is sweet and an onion-and-pepper quiche is savory and you shouldn’t mix sweet and savory. Oh mon dieu! Now that I knew this, I told her that, indeed, she is a monumental FAILURE and a truly horrible person!

You know, folks, we can be awfully hard on ourselves. Why the very thought of a graham cracker crust on a quiche!
– – – –

Some of you had more worldly things on your mind:

Quoting economist Paul Krugman: “What was truly impressive about the decade past…was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.”

We should be “committed to the idea of learning as the most important thing we should, ah…learn.”
– – – –
Another parishioner came to visit me. He told me how he’d first known success in the Army, saw service in Korea, was seriously injured by another service member with PTSD. Later, he went on to get a job and to marry – well, he married a couple of times – and he had a house and a family and was doing really well. Then some bad decisions caused him to lose it all quickly: house, marriage, job, everything. He was homeless, unemployed, broke. Eventually, he got some help at the VA, got his feet underneath him, became a social worker, put his life together, married well, and eventually became the manager of a neuro-psych unit for vets. He attributes his success as a counselor to vets to his own experiences of failure. He’s been where they are, and as a result he’s trusted, trustworthy, and genuine.
– – – –
This makes me weepy. I failed, like everything from age 18-22. I failed college courses. I failed relationships (one with disastrous consequences), romantic and familial. I was diagnosed with endometriosis, which made me feel failed as a woman. I was appallingly awful at my chosen career. I don’t know that I learned anything, but looking back, I must have learned something, because my failures since have been manageable for 20 years. The college courses are the only ones that don’t make me cry anymore.
– – – –
I’ve thought my obituary should read, “She was laid off from every job she ever had.” The most awkward time was when I was in the ladies room with a co-worker, discussing whether the company had a future, when the woman running the company came in. She told us our contracts were over and it would be our last day. So, I wonder, who else was ever laid off in a ladies room?”
– – – –
My best failure was my divorce, initiated by my husband. All those years, I thought I was meeting his needs but I never asked, “What do I think about this or that?” After 27 years of behaving as “we,” I very slowly discovered the real “me.” Difficult though it’s been being single for 20+ years, I slowly came to recognize and understand the real “me.” I’ve never told this before to anyone.
– – – –
My children and grandchildren will never speak to me again. I failed to listen to my parents who tried to teach me how simpler, therefore easier, therefore happier life would be without children. Of course the world would stagnate without human children.
– – – –
I once was fired from a job. I was a counselor at a women’s healthcare clinic that provided abortion services and healthcare to inner city women in Cleveland. The owners of the clinic from Texas came to assess the clinic and made plans to ditch the healthcare side of the business, as abortions were the profit-maker. I was outraged. I was not subtle in expressing my outrage, and I was overheard by the Texas management. The executive director fought back tears when she gave me the news I’d been pink slipped. She said I was one of their best employees but it was just economics. I replied that it wasn’t right to do that to the poor women in the community. She agreed but was caught between a rock and a hard place. I was never so proud to be fired from a job.
– – – –
As a musician, failure comes up all the time. I always tell my students that performing is a great way to take risks without consequences, because nothing really bad ever comes from a “failed” performance. When I ask them what the worst thing that could happen to a neurosurgeon or a firefighter, and what their worst fear in performing is, they understand what I mean!
– – – –
I’m going to close with some things by one parishioner who sent me a wonderful essay he’d written about he and a friend attempting to bicycle in the Green Mountains of Vermont, especially Lincoln Gap, the steepest paved mile in America.

“The road inclined vertiginously toward the treetops and the sky hidden beyond.” (You gotta love somebody who uses the word vertiginously.) Despite an unbelievable herculean effort, we couldn’t do it. “We’d been defeated by Lincoln Gap…. Standing there feet on the pavement exhausted, I experienced another swell of emotion – a salve, instantaneous and powerful for the sting of failure. Gratitude….That was when I understood. What mattered was not the outcome of the attempt, but the attempt itself. Lincoln Gap had been my quest, and the heroes in quest narratives…are changed most profoundly by the journeys themselves. Like a veil lifted, I could see what really mattered. What mattered was that Ed and I had undertaken this quest together, and that the quest had cemented the bonds of our friendship. What mattered was that I have a wife, a life partner, who understood not the quest itself, but its importance to me. We’d be back for another attempt on Lincoln Gap. But that was for later. Right now, we were right where we needed to be…. We remounted and set off again. There was more riding to do.
– – – –
The heroes in quest narratives are changed most profoundly by the journeys themselves. We are such heroes. There is more riding to do. There are more and better failures to be made. More weeping, more laughing, more touching. Don’t ever use a graham cracker crust on your quiche. And think twice before making Acorn Squash with Cranberries and Port. There is more cooking and baking to do. There is more cheering to do. Go Pats. More sleep, more dreams, more waking up. There is more shoveling to be done. There is more life to be lived. Still and always, we are grateful. Amen.

Closing Words

John read from the Boston Globe an appreciation of Sidewalk Sam (Bob Guillemin) who died this week at age 75. Sidewalk Sam was an artist who with paint and chalk sketched scenes on the streets and sidewalks of Boston. In the 1970’s, while working on the roof of his home, he fell 30 feet in an accident that paralyzed his legs. His artwork was created leaning down from his wheelchair. He recalled this about his accident:

“On the way down I said, ‘Oops, that’s it; I’m going to die.’ And then I hit the ground. I wasn’t unconscious. I couldn’t move three-quarters of my body, but I felt so happy, because I still had the gift of life.”

So do we all. Amen.