Failing More and Loving It!

Because so many readers enjoyed this blog, I am reposting it. Happy reading!

When I was growing up, the worst thing that could happen to me was to fail, especially in school. My parents prized good grades, and I dutifully complied, racking up lots of 100s, gold stars, and honors commendations on my report cards. Until I got to the 7th grade. I hit a wall with math that year–must have been the “new math” that was in vogue at the time. I remember the strange terminology about sets and confusing word problems. One day when I got a test back, the was a big red “D” at the top of the page. I can still remember the sick feeling that spread over my body. I remember feeling like my cheeks were on fire. I dreaded going home. How would I explain that failure?  What would my parents say? Would I be punished?

Ann in 1st grade

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember the awful feelings I carried and the angry self-talk chattering away in my head about failure. Thankfully, my teacher helped me to understand the concepts, and I moved on. I think that was the last “D” I ever got. But no one ever told me that failure was really part of learning and mistakes were a necessary part of moving forward. No one ever got honors for mistakes. And no one talked about the value of failure until I found the creativity people.

The Florida Creativity Conference in Sarasota, Florida, has offered a rich array of workshops and presentations over the course of a March weekend  every year for the past 13 years. I started attending in 2008 with the encouragement of Anthony Hyatt, a wonderful violinist who uses his talents to bring joy through music in retirement communities and hospitals.  Anthony and I met in 2008 at a networking event for creative entrepreneurs, and he spoke so positively about the conference that I decided to go–in 2008 and every year since.

I remember telling a friend, “It’s really a shame that I had to be an adult in my 50s before I could experience learning in such a playful environment.”  And because learning is actually experimental to a large degree, there is always the possibility of failure. But the creativity folks don’t shy away from failure–they embrace it. In fact, one of my first experiences at the conference involved an improv game where we formed a big circle in a large classroom and played “Celebrate Failure.” As soon as the leader named a brand of car, the person he pointed to had to name three models of that car–three two-syllable models and we had to snap with each syllable.

What happened next was the big surprise. As soon as someone had a turn–and could’t snap and name the cars, we all cheered and said, “Congratulations!  You failed.”  It probably sounds silly when I say it to you, but the lesson resonated with each one of us who played the game. After we had all “failed,” we discussed the power of reframing our experiences and asking what we learned from something that didn’t work out.


“Did you learn anything?” became my new mantra whenever I tried an experimental  lesson  in my writing classes, especially when I didn’t get the results I had hoped for. No more sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. No more cheeks flaming with shame. Now I think about the “Failure Game” and remember the fun of everyone cheering together.

I’d like to leave you with a thought from one of my favorite poets, David Whyte. In one of his talks about being authentic and being willing to take risks, he talks about the tasks of the soul. David says something like, “The soul doesn’t care if you failed or you succeeded. All the soul cares about is did you learn something?  If you did, then the soul celebrates.”

What Must You Lose to Find Kindness?

When I was a child, my mother emphasized the virtue of kindness. I can still hear her soft voice encouraging me to be kind to my siblings or be kind to my friends. But what did kindness look like?

When I was a child, kindness often meant sharing my toys or taking one of my siblings along to the library–when I really wanted to be alone. And what was the benefit? My mother’s smile or even the surprise of a fun adventure with my sibling.

Ann in 1st grade
Ann in 1st grade

It doesn’t take long to see there is a great need for kindness in the world–often on a grand scale. Sometimes we may even feel overwhelmed by the need we see on the news–refugees fleeing from Syria, flood and earthquake victims, the families of drone strike victims. What do our individual acts of kindness mean when stretched onto the world canvas? How can we make a difference?

When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of our communities, often the first response is  shut down, to turn away. If we can just avert our eyes, then we are safe from acting. And then I remember what a friend who works at Baltimore’s Healthcare for the Homeless told me:  “Even if you don’t want to or can’t give a person money, please look at them. Our clients say the worst pain of being homeless is the feeling that they are invisible.”

Digging deeper into my psych after that encounter, I had to admit why it was hard to look into the eyes of people who are homeless: It’s that chilling realization that is could happen to me. And in that moment, I know what I had to do. I resolved that even if I didn’t have money to give or didn’t choose to give money, I could give my attention. I could say “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you.”  It was in realizing that I, too, could lose something precious that I found a simple way to be kind. It was in realizing my connection that I could reach out.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” exorts readers to do much the same thing. She starts by saying “Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things,…”  Enjoy the poem. What do you have to lose?


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~from Words Under the Words, Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye