Fail Forward into Learning
Joe just completed a 6-month work engagement. Happy to complete one consuming body of work and pave the way to the next, he called me for an Honorable Closure session. He was very animated and engaged with the process until I asked him if he could magically go back in time, what things he would do differently on the last project. He crossed his arms and furrowed his brow, questioning the value of “dredging up the past.”
I’d hit a nerve.
It’s not the first time that question has been met with resistance. The gift of Honorable Closure is to help people think about their regrets in a new, life affirming way. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know our failures can be a “growth opportunity,” but many people speak about their mistakes as a “necessary evil.” What if they aren’t evil at all?
What if “failures” are just a neutral and natural consequence of stepping out and being human?
What gets in the way of our seeing it this way? Pain. Fear of looking bad. Failure gets a bad rap in our culture and is loaded with baggage. It’s not enough to embrace failure. We need to acknowledge the pain of it, to give equal, mindful attention to the discomfort as well as the doors of learning it can open.
We can disentangle the good and bad parts of failure by making room for both, noticing the symbiotic relationship between success and failure. You can’t find one without the other . . . ever.
This requires courage, which comes from the Latin – couer or heart. The original translation into English was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. This suggests a willingness to let go of who you think you should be and get real. Mistakes and all.
Joe allows me to walk him through a guided meditation designed to cultivate this neutral perspective. I assure him he does not need to share his list of regrets with anyone, though there is great value in doing that; when we risk authentic transparency, we can be seen and know the joy of feeling supported by another human being. Both people feel connected. Revealing our misgivings or failures to someone we trust also brings them into perspective. Something we thought was an epic fiasco can be seen for the garden variety flop that it is. We might even be able to laugh about it.
I never presume clients have regrets about the event they want closure on, but most people harbor some misgivings. Looking at these events with honest compassion helps up become insightful about lessons learned so we can integrate them and move forward.
Joe admits to having two regrets. Regret #1) He doesn’t think he did an adequate job of mentoring a college intern he hired to handle one aspect of the deliverables. He grew impatient with her and took some of the work back as a way of maintaining control, diminishing her confidence in the process. What does this reveal about areas for development? Joe thinks he needs to develop patience, what I call “managing the creative tension between the beginning/vision and the end.” I suggest he could also look at developing trust in other’s abilities and let go of control. This is an illusion many people confuse with balanced responsibility.
Regret #2) Joe spent more time on the project than he expected and wishes he had charged more money. Ah, this is an ongoing lesson for every self-employed consultant and worth taking a look at. He tells me how much money he earned and I give him another way of looking at it. “You got paid tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to better price and value your services.”
What next? Joe will want to see if there is anything else he needs to say or do to be complete with this project, and take actions that are aligned with what he sees. He may also choose to take on some practices that support his development. In that way he fails forward, free of regrets and sets himself up well to envision the next project.
Time and time again the practice of Honorable Closure shows me that our failures are never as bad as we think they are, as long as we fail forward with clear intention to learn and grow. When we allow our regrets to teach us, they also show us important ways forward that life has no other way of revealing.
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