The Three Words You Must Never Say

The Three Words You Must Never Say

Recently. I was lucky enough to come across a little book called “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.” The author, Pema Chodron, is an American-born Buddhist nun. The book contains the commencement address she gave at her granddaughter’s college graduation. The title was intriguing, and it made me want to see why she was encouraging failure.

While the text of the book is sparse (taking up only 80 pages), the message is anything but. While I hope you will read the text in its entirety, there are two phrases I want to repeat here. The first quote by Chodron is the title of a section. It’s  “Welcoming the unwelcome.” The second is her assertion that “mistakes can be portals of discovery.”

As a society, and especially as professionals, we are failure- averse. We want—in fact, we need—to be successful. We have been raised on the premise of success, and our self-worth is closely tied to positive outcomes. We don’t want to fail at anything, whether a scholastic, athletic, or personal endeavor. We want to ace that exam, make the playoffs, and get the job. We are particularly unprepared for big failures like being fired or getting divorced. We may have trouble understanding a failure or moving beyond it. Seldom do we see it as opening a new door, or finding a way forward, or helping us better understand ourselves and our lives.

Yet, as every scientist knows, there are many failures on the path to discovery. In your personal life, failures can help you change direction. They can better prepare you for the future. They can make you stronger, more self-aware, more self-reliant, and more self-accepting. So, as Chodron encourages, fail again and fail better each time.

The concept of “failing better,” also made me think of another favorite statement, this one by the poet Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.” Angelou helps us recognize that mistakes can happen for many reasons and that we can learn from them.

Both of these amazing women are encouraging us to put failure in perspective, to be gentle with ourselves, and to avoid excessive self-blame and self-recrimination. Labeling oneself a failure or a loser can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say “I’m a failure” often enough, you might start believing it, and eventually you will become one. Instead, eliminate those three words not only from your conversations with others, but from internal conversations with yourself. Instead, promise yourself you will do better, and, if necessary, fail better the next time.

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