“How to Fail Better”

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


Opening Words

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

I walk down the street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless,
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street,
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.


The Imperfectionist, by Forrest Church

The reason I’ve been able to produce
so much is that I’m not a perfectionist
– I’m an imperfectionist.

I’m confident that everything I say
can be improved upon by others,
and that’s my great strength,
because I know that it won’t been improved upon by others
unless I take the first step.

When we only do things which please us,
or don’t frighten us,
after a while fewer and fewer things please us.

Over time, our circle of options diminishes
until we are prisoners in gardens of our own making.

The more decisions you make in your life,
the more times you act,
the more certain it is that you will be wrong.

To be fulfilled we need to recognize,
all of us,
that the world doesn’t owe us a living
– rather we owe the world a living.

And in the brief time that is given us,
we must somehow learn to give ourselves away.



One of my pleasures is reading poetry. I guess you could call reading poetry a kind of spiritual discipline, though that sounds pretentious. Really, as far as I’m concerned, all kinds of things can be spiritual disciplines: cooking, making the bed, flossing your teeth, cleaning the bathroom, SUDOKO, walking in the woods, woodworking, balancing rocks one on top of another, breathing.

As for poetry, I especially like poems I can understand (there are a lot that go way over my head) and, every day, I am emailed a usually understandable poem from something called The Writer’s Almanac. It’s chosen by Garrison Keillor, Minnesota Public Radio. Check it out.

A few days ago the poem was something by somebody I’d never heard of, and this one I didn’t really understand…but one thing in that poem has stayed with me. There was something in the poem about the poet having been raised Catholic and what the priests and nuns taught him but time passed and “By then,” the poet said, “we were Unitarian and marched off weekly, dutifully, to hear nothing in particular. “

I don’t think that one line had much to do with whatever the poem was about – and it did not strike me as a great poem – but that one line has stuck in my Unitarian Universalist craw.

My biggest fear in standing before you – today or at any time – is that you will hear nothing in particular. My biggest fear is that what any of us do here together means nothing in particular. Sound and fury, maybe…but signifying nothing.

Truth be told, there are plenty of churches, some of them Unitarian Universalist, and temples and mosques where people march off weekly, dutifully, to hear and do nothing in particular.

And I’ll be damned – we’ll be damned – if this is one of them. I want what I do here and I want what we do here to be vital, to be about a whole lot in particular, to matter, to make a difference, and to signify.

Well, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I suppose I could preface any sermon that way and, I don’t know about you, but I feel better already!

Here in this church we try to speak and hear about things that matter.

And this morning I want to commend to you another spiritual discipline and that is called failing. I speak in praise, not really of failure because no person deserves that label but I speak in praise of failing.

In general, I think we should fail more often than we do; and, specifically, I think we should fail better.

I think the spiritual discipline of failing better matters so much and is relevant to so many things – our personal life, our church life, our community, our nation, our world – that I’m going to preach about it today and next Sunday as well…until I get it right or at least until I fail better!

Actually, I’ll frame the topic this morning and then – by email or by phone or in person – I’d really like to hear about your best failures – and what you learned from them – and then next Sunday, I’ll tell our stories (anonymously if you like) so the whole world will know the errors of our ways. As Saul said in the good book, 1 Samuel chapter 26:21 (are you following along with me? “Behold (he said) I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.” So have we all, sisters and brothers, and next week we’ll hear some testimony!

This topic actually derives from a sermon I preached in September about “disruptive innovation.” (That sermon can be read on-line and it’s also in printed form out in the hallway.) Just as is said in the quotes at the top of your order of service, the idea is that, in a rapidly changing environment, “If you want to do things the same, you’re going to have to do things differently.” And, again, I think this is relevant to us personally, to our church, our local and global community, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.”

I think we need to fail more. Now, of course, I have to say that I’m not talking about catastrophic failures. You can fail at driving your car and not live to tell us all about it next Sunday. I’m not talking about the soul-grinding failures of poverty or addiction or things that devastate, though of course there are heroic stories of those who once were lost but now are found.

And I know that even small failures can devastate. I once knew a poem about a man who killed himself because he lost his hat. He had lost so much for so long that the loss of his hat was the one last thing he could not bear.

That said, most of us can and should fail more often than we do. We often, I believe, are over-cautious, risk-averse. Social scientists observe that human beings fear failure more than we desire success because to be successful means risking failure; and not wanting to fail, we do nothing. Which often guarantees failure!

Remember St. Exupery and The Little Prince? “I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man–he is a mushroom!”

Smelling, looking, loving, doing – all entail risk of failure.

In Florida in the fall, I visited the winter laboratory of Thomas Edison whose technological wizardry remains truly phenomenal. I’ll repeat the anecdote which many of you know (but which I am discovering is not known by a younger generation).

When attempting to invent the light bulb, Edison passed current through filaments made of every imaginable substance. Time after time after time, the things burned up. “Your attempts are failures,” he was told, to which he responded, “Not so! I know 10,000 things that don’t work!”

It took more than 10,000 failed attempts before Edison discovered that tungsten could bear the current and emit a durable light.

There’s a new book titled Brilliant Blunders that catalogues the mistakes and failures of Charles Darwin, the evolutionist, Lord Kelvin, the mathematical physicist, Linus Pauling, the chemist, Fred Hoyle, the astrophysicist, and Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist.

Kelvin once calculated the earth’s geologic age and he was later proven to be off by 4.4 billion years! More than 20% of Einstein’s papers contain mistakes. These instances were a consequence of their continuous attempts to think outside the box. The hallmark of truly great theorists: “They are guided by intuition more than by formalism.”

If we are ever to succeed, we must risk and experience failure.

Recently, I heard about an elementary school parent in who regularly did his child’s homework for his young daughter. The dad did not want the child to fail but by his shielding deprived her of the experience of learning. Of course, this happened in another town and would never happen here.

I look forward to a multitude of failure stories next week: school failures (how many of you ever got an F? I got a D in algebra), business failures (I was fired from my first job at a 7-11. How many of you ever have been fired?), marriage failures, parenting failures (countless), failures in the kitchen and the bedroom (well, there’s probably a limit to what we want to hear). Did your courage ever fail you? Mine has.

One of the critical lessons that I think is missing in our culture is how to fail in a relationship – for example, how to break up with a girl or boyfriend. That’s such an important skill to learn! Inability to navigate failure in a relationship is a chief cause of dating and domestic violence. We need to find ways to teach that here, in church.

“In everything there is a hidden wholeness,” said the monk Thomas Merton and I think it is only those who experience brokenness and failure who can discern that hidden wholeness.
Those who have played the fool and erred exceedingly have a special place in my heart.

The transcendentalist era of the early 1800’s is one of my favorites in liberal religious history. Yes, there were greats like Thoreau and Emerson and Margaret Fuller but I am also inspired by the magnificent failures of, say, the people who established the 1840’s Fruitlands community in the town of Harvard. If you have not done so already, go to their wonderful museums sometime.

Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May, was one of the founders and a first-class wise fool. Fruitlands was a utopian back-to-nature commune started with the audacious notion of growing mulberry trees to support the growth of silkworms so they could make silk. Failure number one!

There was somebody at Fruitlands who attempted to live an entire year on a diet solely consisting of apples, and then the next year he ate only crackers! A crackpot! A guy named Abram Wood, in a fit of transcendentalist fervor, changed his name to Wood Abram. Some of them even conducted experiments on the effect of nudity upon plowing. The chief effect was that it annoyed the neighbors, and so they took to plowing at night, carrying lanterns and wearing sheets. Fruitlands failed spectacularly and lasted all of 7 months, but its enduring legacy is the audacity of the human spirit. Similar things can be said of that era’s other utopian experiments, Brook Farm and Hopedale.

They tried to live in a new and more wholesome way, yet many of their efforts failed laughably.

How many of you have lived or know people who have lived in communes? We look forward to hearing how that worked out next week.

We can be more audacious than we are and fail more, but we can also fail better. The business school stuff I read about disruptive innovation led me to management analyses of failure, such as this, Fail Better – Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner, by two women associated with MIT and Harvard.

I failed at reading it thoroughly – it’s pretty wonky. But two quotations are instructive. The kinds of failures its authors advocate are “structured, low-risk experimentation that generate useful information.” Structured, low-risk, generative of useful information. “Critical thought and insight,” the authors also say, “are triggered by surprise, not confirmation.” I want to be, I want us to be…full of surprises, not mere confirmation.

There is a military concept called an After Action Review (AAR) when the team looks back at what can be learned from the previous action. That’s what all good teams do. Sports teams, of course. Perhaps some of your teams at work. We here do some After Action Reviews; we should do more. I know a couple in this congregation who very deliberately do an annual rollback of their relationship and their life together. What happened? What went well? What went badly? What did we learn? Who’s going to sign up for that?? Not easy but smart.

A non-wonky chapter in this book is an analysis of the modern American civil rights movement. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. told church leaders, “You must do more than pray and read the Bible,” and what then was launched was
something new and risky which, indeed risked and experienced and learned from failure. Until that time civil rights had mainly been promoted in the courts and in Congress; years were given to litigation and lobbying.

The new leaders would not wait – and King was but one among a large group that often differed in tactics but collaborated and learned from one another and took the civil rights movement to the streets. This was a radical change in strategy with a new focus on nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action.

Birmingham leader Fred Shuttlesworth said, “We wanted confrontation, nonviolent confrontation, to see if it would work.” Not everything worked. There was a 1961 campaign in Albany, Georgia that failed and yet yielded important lessons. King learned to focus attention narrowly, “Our protest was so vague,” King said, “that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters…We never since scattered our efforts in a general attack on segregation, but focused upon specific, symbolic objectives.”

They learned from their failures. Howard Zinn observed, “Social movements may have many ‘defeats’ – failing to achieve objectives in the short run – but in the course of the struggle the strength of the old order begins to erode, the minds of people begin to change.”

In 1963 the movement’s leaders made the controversial decision to allow schoolchildren to participate in demonstrations in Birmingham, what came to be called The Children’s Crusade. That risked failure big-time and hundreds of children were attacked by police dogs, cattle prods, and water cannons – and that attracted widespread attention and provoked a crisis. When unrest escalated to riots, Birmingham civic leaders agreed to desegregate.

I think you can see that the civil rights movement took huge risks of failing, and yet its leaders chose to fail more and to fail better.

I’m sure I will elaborate more upon this in coming sermons as I will be in Alabama in March for the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Selma to Montgomery freedom march.

One other observation about conversations about race (and I so commend Boston Mayor Walsh for encouraging these conversations.) The essential thing is to take the chance of engaging, speaking, putting your foot in your mouth. Typically, we’re so afraid of offending that we hold back. The only way race conversations proceed is by risking offense. Say what you think and deal with the consequences!

Failure is not an unmitigated good thing and we all know that failing can hurt and sting and linger. Without taking excessive risks, I do hope we can fail more. And I hope we can fail better.

The Quaker theologian Parker Palmer wrote a book on the 5 “habits of the heart” that are most needed in our democracy. But then he said if you can only remember 2 of the five, he recommended chutzpah and humility:

“By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial — and may not be true at all — so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other.”

Chutzpah is what encourages us to fail more. Humility is what allows us to fail better – and this is my final point. We will only risk failure if we feel safe enough to fail. Our church, I think, aspires to be a place where we can safely fail and the world needs safe spaces where we may take the risk of truth-telling. For me, the church has been a place – and I aspire for this to be a place – where it is safe to be your truest self, to try on ideas and identities, and sexualities and politics and all the rest. It is safe – well, safe enough – to sometimes fail and to fail in community.

With chutzpah and humility, sisters and brothers, we can fail more and we can fail better, and I ask you to turn to your hymnals to #461 so that we may again be reminded that, like it or not, we will fail and that nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.


Closing Words

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope–not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything Is Gonna Be All Right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, of truth-telling about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we’re seeing, asking them what they see.

– Victoria Safford