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Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown
by Pema Chodron
Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2015
133 pages
Reviewed by Monique CM Keffer

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,” proclaimed Robert Kennedy in a 1966 speech in South Africa. Undeniably, his statement can provoke discomfort. No one wants to feel the inadequacy associated with “failing greatly.” Needless to say, when author Pema Chodron wanted to give a commencement address about failure, she kept her topic to herself, fearing requests to change it. Who wants to sit in an audience celebrating the inherent possibilities of graduation and listen to a talk about disappointments? Yet she kept her intended content and from that address emerged Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown, a slim but profound book about the success one can only achieve through being unsuccessful.

Perhaps best known for her bestselling When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun and teacher at Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia, Canada, uses personal experience as the foundation for Fail. She also utilizes material from writers including Samuel Beckett whose quote is the book’s title, Alcoholics Anonymous, old Tibetan stories, contemplative teachings, teachers’ advice, and even a Beyonce video. The book includes a foreword by Seth Godin and an interview with Chodron. These bits of knowledge communicate that failing can lead to change like nothing else can.

Chodron’s text is an ideal present to those stepping into the unknown, or those who have done so and returned hurting. One could tuck it into a bag, seeking its encouragement as needed. Spiritual directors could employ it in professional development, workshops, or book discussions. Passages from the text could be used to begin or end spiritual direction sessions. In fact within one pervading message of Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown, lies the heart of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is not a theological discussion among perfect individuals. Instead, it is a real heart connection that can be felt between people sharing a common flawed humanness. Chodron writes, “out of that space of” our “vulnerability and rawness and the feeling of failure can come our best human qualities of bravery, kindness, the ability to really care about each other, the ability to reach out to each other” (73).

Monique CM Keffer, MA, is a writer, spiritual director, and teacher in the Scared Ground Spiritual Direction training program in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. She can be reached at monique@moniquekeffer.com.

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