The Year of Failing Forward

If you like, you can listen to me read this post.

My connection with the popular concept of failing forward, articulated by John Maxwell, goes back to 1994 when I was forty-four years old. That was my tenth year of consulting, but only my fourth year, full time. I was working at a hospital near Chicago and I was doing what I thought was great work helping the senior management team expand their potentials. I did quite a lot of individual and team development, assisting the group, including the CEO, deal with their internal interpersonal discords and get ready to face an impending financial crisis because the census (number of filled beds) was continuing to decline.

The positive feedback and continued commitment to our joint work by the team made me feel hugely important. There was a day one of the best internal managers of the organization told me he thought I had not only made a significant difference for the entire hospital but that many people were beginning to see me as the de facto leader of the place. My private sense of ego and a comment like that should have been a clue that somehow I had lost my bearings about my role, but I accepted it all…and it went to my head without my even knowing it.

After two years and countless trips from Seattle to Chicago, my objectives had begun to transition toward working more closely with the hospital’s middle managers. I wanted to engage them in helping define what concepts and practices would most clearly support a standard for leadership at the hospital. I was warned — but didn’t listen — that the method I was proposing would be a problem for people; essentially asking the middle managers to nominate a small task force of peers they felt best exemplified these positive traits.

Well, I didn’t listen and went ahead with a large group meeting to accomplish this goal. It was a huge tactical failure, just as some of the members of the senior team had predicted and warned me. The middle managers were deeply offended; those nominated felt embarrassed and resentful. In one two-hour session, I had wiped out all the previous good work I’d done. The meeting destroyed my reputation with literally everyone in a management role, and within a couple of months it also destroyed any chance of doing work at the hospital ever again. I have never felt so instantly shunned by people who had professed to like me. I’d gone from white knight to pariah literally overnight. This place had been what I thought would be the crowning achievement of my early consulting years — and it had also represented a big chunk of my income. Now instead of feeling deep pride in my accomplishments, I experienced a wasting sense of failure. I’d had smaller doses of reality in some past consulting situations, but this dose was huge.

A complicating factor was that within a few days after that fatal meeting, my then wife Sarah and I and our two small children, Tyler and Victoria, ages five and two went off to vacation for five weeks in France. People at the hospital knew I was doing this and probably felt they were funding our luxury trip — and to some extent they were right. So along with the other baggage I took on the plane was an enormous suitcase of guilt — guilt for screwing up my work; guilt for maybe picking the wrong profession; guilt for spending the money; guilt for not feeling like I deserved the vacation; guilt for not being emotionally present for my partner and our kids while on it.

In the end, the trip turned out alright. I was out of touch with the hospital the whole time but guessed that my work would be terminated on my return — which is exactly what happened. Each night of that five weeks in France, I went to sleep thinking about that one bad meeting and what had happened, examining every single reason I hadn’t listened to the warnings. I had no capacity to forgive myself at all. Among the greatest of these reasons, of course, was my inability to listen to feedback when I was so sure, just so damned sure, that I was right, that I just knew I could pull it off.

But one thing happened on that trip that began to change my life, and began to help me fail forward. It was this: on the last day of the journey, having returned to Paris before the flight home, I visited the beautiful Impressionist galleries of Musée de l’Orangerie at the Tuileries. The museum housed eight colossal paintings of Nymphéas, water lillies, by Claude Monet. They were, at that time, housed in an underground gallery in two connecting oval rooms. The paintings are very large, some two by six meters. Standing in the middle of the rooms, you become totally immersed in Monet’s vision, with a painting in front, to each side, and behind you. You live in his subtle, all-pervading world of water lillies. You are held spellbound by the vision of a genius, for he had not only created the paintings, he had designed the rooms themselves, requiring them to be opened only after his death.

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(You can view these extraordinary paintings here. Click “L’ensemble de l’Orangerie” in the left column, then click on the paintings to explore and magnify them.)

Standing before the paintings, knowing with a sense of profound humiliation what in all likelihood I would face going home, on that last day of my supposed “vacation,” I could have wept to see those water lillies. I kept walking up close to two of the paintings, Reflets d’arbres and Reflets verts, to see how Monet’s few, almost inconsequential strokes, added up to this or that beautifully unfolding blossom when I stepped back to look again. And behind the many blossoms, the dark waters upon which they floated suddenly became not a few feet deep with shadowed reflections but an opening to the stars, planets, suns and moons, the vastness of the entire universe itself. I knew at that moment that I didn’t know how to look at what had happened to me. I was standing too close to the canvas. I was seeing brush strokes, not the flower, and not what that flower rested upon.

The purpose of my trip to France, I suddenly realized, was to find these paintings, this raw self-knowledge, in the midst of a terribly wounding experience. As I write these words, the emotions all come back to me and tears come to my eyes. But, indeed, when the termination did come, over numbing martinis provided by my closest friends on the management team, the HR Director and CFO, I was ready for the blow.

It took two years of my career to begin to recover. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? A single job for a consultant costing so much personally. But it’s all true. It took two years, after which I began to construct the finest work of my life, my Beyond The Edge workshop in Wyoming (My partners and I have now decided to close out this out and are no longer doing these workshops, but it is still the finest work). And, in turn, Beyond the Edge opened many other doors, not the least of which was the actual beginning of my own spiritual journey. Nor certainly would I be doing the kind or quality of work I am doing today.

I share this story for anyone who might think that failing at an important project can kill you. It can. If it’s a big enough failure, it can kill a you that you need to grow past and let go of. If it’s big enough, you learn something about what it’s like to burn all the way down and rise again from the ashes, like the Phoenix. I was lucky, trusting in this universe, to be brought to those oval rooms, to see the Nymphéas. What was that feeling, that insight that came through those immense canvases? Who knows. Love, God, Trust? Maybe some form of impersonal reassurance — there’s an oxymoron for you — that things would somehow turn out okay and for the best. And the truth is, they have.

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11 Comments

  • This is very powerful, and timely for me. Thank you, Dan.

  • I know the feeling of going from white knight to pariah almost overnight. I was also a consultant. I, too, got overconfident and made a mistake about how I handled a situation. But your story makes me wonder if it was really my mistake that made them reject me or if there just comes a time when the outsider gets too close and learns the hidden, dangerous secrets and wants to change things and that’s just too scary. So something they might have forgiven you for or even went along with before now becomes the reason to stop doing what is making them afraid. I am grateful for what I learned and it sounds like you learned a lot, too, but I wonder.

  • Marianne

    Yes, I know what you mean. I may have gotten too close to the real culture of the middle-managers, especially their sensitivity to comparing performance. I stubbornly rationalized to myself that they should be able to do what I was asking of them. And perhaps in a way I was right. But the truth is also I wasn’t sensitive to how exposed and vulnerable they might feel. I didn’t see the underlying reality and power of their competition for survival with one another — mostly because those I worked with seemed like such great people and also because I was absolutely determined to wear rose-colored glasses. I think many of the managers had a better idea of the coming financial crisis for the hospital than did the senior managers — and what was likely to happen. They knew who would be let go — and they were right. A couple of years later about a third of all hospital employees were laid off. I did learn a lot…about myself and about the need to deeply understand the voice of the organization.

  • A powerful and revealing story, on numerous dimensions.

    I find that my own glimpses of self-knowledge always — and only — come after episodes of terrible wounding.

    I also find that it is often very difficult to decide when to accept the recommendations of others and when to follow my own instincts … and that being aware of and understanding my own motivations — enhancing my fragile ego vs. focusing on how I can truly be of service — is often crucial for making good decisions.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of the term “failing forward” before, and was unclear about what you meant by that (or why, in your title, you refer to [only!] a year of failing forward). However, following the link you provided to Maxwell’s book helped me understand the concept better. I’m reminded of the entrepreneurial mantra “fail fast” and the Love & Logic mantra of “fail early, fail often” … and Jack Kornfield’s encouragement to practice the art of making mistakes wakefully.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • dear Dan,

    Thank you for your ongoing willingness to teach from those deep places and times of difficulty and pain. In fact, part of what I receive from your potent story and the image of you in front of Monet’s water lilies, moving close and stepping back, is a feeling of the deep. The hint that there is so much more there (every there) than we can see or know.

    I am a phoenix, too. Just about two years ago, the clinic that several good friends and I founded failed; or, rather, years of struggle and loss and well-meaning ineffective efforts finally culminated in asking our board to let the organization go out of business, which was very costly for all of us. We did good work along the way, too, but in the end it was outweighed by what didn’t work. Some of us chose to stay together and start again, much smaller. Almost a year ago we had a big celebration and invited a troupe of fire-dancer friends to perform a phoenix dance! They acted out dream and birth and growth, then struggle and death, and finally rebirth — not glamorous, but quiet, and very grateful. What I am learning to trust is my capacity for being OK, no matter what it is that happens.

    Warmly, Christy

  • christy

    Thank you for sharing your own story openly. It seems to me we prefer to keep such life events private. I know I did. After all, this is the first time I’ve shared this story publicly — it’s twelve years old! And yet we all need to know about the phoenix, symbol as it is of consuming fire and of our divinity. In one way another, I’m imagining we are all part of the “phoenix club.” The real “failures,” the ones that hit us the hardest are the ones we sure seem to learn the most from, and maybe because they require going back into ourselves for awhile, sometimes a long while, before the celebration dance arrives. And, yes, isn’t it incredible the result of all this burning down and waking up is trust.

    Best to you, Dan

  • Hey Dan, I hadn’t realised you had ‘returned’ until this morning.

    Sometimes I feel such a fraud posting about the things I do when I seem to fall down so often myself; and come to the Truth not with willingness…. but kicking and screaming and hiding at what seems like almost every turn. After ‘a night from hell’ I woke up to your comment on my blog. Thank you so much. I cannot begin to tell how welcome and how healing that comment and this post are to me.

    Blessings and best wishes, my friend.

  • You are most welcome, Nick. And thanks again for the many inspiring thoughts you’ve shared.

  • I appreciated your story, I was drawn into it and even felt a lot of vicarious emotions as I read it from excitement to fear to dread to relief to artistic epiphany.

    I believe failing and falling have a lot in common and your work reminded me of the writing of Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall (www.learningtofall.com).

    Thanks

  • Dan,
    Thank you for leading me to this wonderful and powerful story of healing. You write about your experience with such courage and clarity. My story of healing focuses on gratitude, and I believe that is essential. However, I see that your journey focuses more on forgiveness…forgiveness of self. I also had to spend some time thinking about how I might have done things differently. It is a very humbling experience, but in the end it is necessary to move forward. It can only help us to grow.

  • Many thanks to you, Lyn, for your very kind and very wise words.

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