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. 


(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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  • 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 (


  • 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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