Seeds of Success in Failure


It seems natural to not want to fail.  Growing up, our parents and teachers admonished us if we failed in activities, sports, or school, so that’s how we’ve grown up.  If we fail in business ventures, partners and investors immediately shy away.  Of course, we also may fail in relationships, and that is even a greater burden emotionally.  All of this has to do with how we’ve chosen to define failure.  The dictionary defines failure as the lack of success, or the nonperformance of an expected result, or insolvency, or deficiency.  This has to be reframed.

First of all, we need to realize that fundamentally as sentient human beings, our role is to experience and learn without judgment.  We take our natural gifts for granted; what are these wonderful senses for, if not to take in experience; what is this amazing mind for, if not to learn.  A full-fledged life is one that recognizes opportunity in every experience and acts on it to the best of its capabilities.  Notice that always winning and success are not necessarily part of that equation.  Have you noticed that the more we judge, the less happy we are?  We have decided to pin failure as negative and success as positive, but who is to say which is which?  We are far too quick to judge good and bad events.

There is an old parable about a farmer, perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Here is how Alan Watts tells it: “Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening, everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”  The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again, all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”  The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what the consequence of the misfortune will be; or, you never know what the consequences of good fortune will be.”

The main point is this:  Can we see the present moment as pure potential?  No matter what the current experience entails, it is always a fertile ground.  In manufacturing, there is this idea of rapid prototyping.  It is fundamentally accepted that design is iterative, and failure is readily accepted.  The idea is to openly invite the next failure, learn from it, and apply that to the next generation quickly.  Why can we apply such innovative thinking to our engineering, but not ourselves?

The reason is because we are not stable, not grounded.  The winds of change have us fluttering.  So first we must take responsibility and establish ourselves in a joyful state that is not dependent on external factors.  Then we can freely observe the intricate dance of life unfold with full awareness and curiosity.  We can engage with enthusiasm, but not entanglement.  Events come and go like the weather.  When it rains, we enjoy the rain.  When there is sunshine, we enjoy that too.  Life becomes like an experience at a Michelin star restaurant – some flavors are sweet, others savory, and sometimes bitter too, but all of it is joyfully welcomed with curiosity and wonder.  Can we take life like that?

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