Fail Better

Thursday, April 9, 2015 - 5:41am
Photo by Tony Sergo

Fail Better

Ever tried.
Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.
Fail again.

Fail better.

I heard a speaker recite these words from Samuel Becket in a talk last year. I had read the words before, but sitting next to my son, the recitation touched my heart deeply.

Fail Better.

Many of us live in cultures of success.
We preach the gospel of success:
Success in life.
Success at work.
Success in our personal relationships.
Success in getting fit.
Success in investment.

Real life doesn’t always work like that.
It doesn’t often work like that.
Actually, it almost never works like that.

Life is not linear.
Life is not a victory march to success.
The life that I know is messy:

Ever tried,
Ever failed.

I fail often. We fail often.
I fail in moving towards the kind of human being that I want to become.
I fail in getting to the gym.
I fail in living the true meaning of these very words here.

Life has detours
And along the detours I have met wondrous friends,
Unanticipated experiences.

The breaking of the heart along the way
has brought a healing
and I am the combination of the wound and the healing.

Try again,
Fail again.

It reminds me of the hauntingly beautiful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah”:

Love is not a victory march…
It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah

What if life is not just about the goal?
What if it is not even just about the path to the goal?
I’ve ever heard wise people tell us that life is not about the success but about the buoyancy, the bounce back, the get-back-up-after-you-get-knocked-down.

What if it is not even the bounce back,
but the fall better, fail better, crack more whole,
break less, heal better, get up, fall again….

Ever tried.
Ever failed.

Fail Better.



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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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I am always fascinated by truth that emerges from unsuspecting places. Some 35 years ago my power hungry, glamorous, aloof boss told me, when I felt I had failed a task "we don't fail, we just become more of who we are". I think failures are more instructive than success. In success, we are comfortable on the surface. In failure, we look deep within. In success there is no need to change direction. In failure, we are immersed change. In success we don't ask the big questions. In failure we reexamine everything. And then, there are those successes that are a "wolf in sheep's clothing", when our success gets us respect from society and a self-deceptive lie from within. The essential ingredient in being true to the self is a deep, abiding self-love and an honoring of all that is real within us. In order to dig deep, we need a safety net of protection. We need not just self-acceptance. We need to treasure who we really are.

I love the way you wrote this and love the message, especially as it concerns events in my past. For my future I'd be willing to forgo the wholesome benefits of failing for some success in my endeavors.

Dr. Omid Jaan,
Sometimes we fail in a way we can't get back up. Sometimes we fail and get beaten down on the ground as well. Sometimes failure isn't an option because it just can't happen anymore.
Sometimes the failures breaks more than just ourselves. Sometimes our failures take away those who can help us back up as well.
Sometimes we just fail to loneliness and brokenness.

And that's the end of it.

There is always, always someone, something, that cares about us, is willing to help us get back up, willing to help us put ourselves together. Sometimes we are too depressed to see that, but must just hold on trusting that this is true.Love.

I read your words and am sad for your plight. Our sense of failure can truly feel heavy and suffocating. But there is always hope. After my greatest failures - and they felt enormous - I found how to get back up, and I offer it to you. Find a safe place where you can be primarily with you. Observe the world (the natural world always works best for me) and see your place in it. Get out of your head.Recognize the world has a simple rhythm with birth and growth and damage and death, and rebirth. We are all part of that cycle. When you decide to get back up, be a different you, pledge to be a stronger you. Finally, recognize that what others think does not define you, but what you think does. Dedicate your life to being new. Staying down is a reflection of the you who "failed." Getting up is a testament to a new strength. Growing through and changing through the "failure" is a bold step in deciding to move forward. Will you fail again? Most likely. But next time you will do it better. I wish you well.

I have felt like that also but things always change and that was the hope I held on without giving up. Live!

Alireza, I am sorry for your pain and heartache and apparent despair. We are all broken in one way or another BUT there is always someone out there who is willing to lend a helping hand. Open up to receiving the help of your neighbors. We are never alone. Be blessed.

Your words touched me. I loved this simple and powerful message. There is courage, beauty, and growth in failing up. Fail Up and Swim On. Thank you for sharing.

Beautiful. Thank you.

This message brought a sense of peace and acceptance to my day. I am grateful for your sharing both poem and music.

Often we don't try things for fear of failing. In not trying, we miss out on knowing what we're capable of accomplishing when we try something new. If we fail, get up, try again, keep going, reach our potential. Omid, thank you for sharing Fail Better.

I first read the opening line as, Ever tried. Ever fallen. Apropos because I've recently fallen and my life has paused in a different space as I do the work of recovery, and this is the third time of having fallen in this way. Friends have said "it must be terrible..." when they hear the story, said this with angst. But this time I have been not had the sense of "Oh dear my life is all messed up." Dr. Safi's words, and my mis-reading of fall instead of fail, brings to mind the Robert Frost poem On a Tree Fallen Across the Road:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are.

Failure, falling, illness, loss... stop our passage and give us the space in life to ask just who we think we are, or as Frost continues:

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an axe.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.

Thank you. This is my favorite of your pieces so far. Its form and well as its content breathes, let's us pause, making it easier to take it all in.

Thank you for the reminder of all of our frailties that make us stronger by trying to overcome and try again!