How To Thrive When You Fail

If you’re on my mailing list or follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that I recently launched a new program I called Inner Pilot Light group coaching.  Launching this program was a big risk for me. Not only was it to be a live program, when all the other programs I’ve launched have been virtual, but it was a full-on spiritual program. No white coat to hide behind. No business coaching meant to help people earn more money that might lure in clients. Just me, my sermons, Inner Pilot Light wisdom, and a tribe of people who are trying, like me, to live in the light.

I was terrified, but thrilled beyond description. I can’t remember ever feeling so giddy about a launch. I literally didn’t sleep the night before.

Calling In The Clients

The day of the launch was a glorious, sunny day, the kind of summer day we only see in San Francisco after summer has officially ended. I marked the day by hiking early in the morning to the zen garden in Green Gulch Zen Center, where I performed a little ceremony to call in the people who would join me for this program. There were chimes. And drums. And incense. It was very “woo woo.”

Then, ritual performed, people called in, I went back to work, hoping the program would fill. By the time I got back from the zen center, four people had registered. I was hopeful.

But it was false hope.  The deadline for registrations came and went and only a handful of people signed up for the live program that would have accommodated up to 80 people in the sanctuary I had rented. A few more signed up to participate virtually, but not enough to make the program financially viable, given the hefty investment I would have to make in renting a space and hiring a videographer to stream the live event.

I was heartbroken. I had to write letters to the few people who had signed up for the program and break the news that I was cancelling the program. Yes, there were tears involved.

Have You Failed At Something That Mattered To You?

The emotions that ran through me when I realized the program had failed were complicated.  I felt disappointed. I felt embarrassed. I felt sad. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I questioned my worth. The Gremlin was going ballistic, chattering away with mean-spirited digs at my self-esteem. My ego (who I call Victoria Rochester) was hiding under the bed. I felt like I never wanted to launch another program again. In fact, maybe I should just stop blogging and go get a real job, one that doesn’t require me to take so many risks.

The downward spiral had begun.

Perhaps you’ve had something similar happen.  You put yourself out there on a limb.  You ask out the object of your affection.  You try to get a book published.  You share something vulnerable with a new friend. You launch a program. You apply to the most elite college.  You write a letter to the birth mother you’ve never met.

And then you fail. She says no. The publishers reject your book. The friend betrays you. The program bombs. The college sends you the skinny letter. Your birth mother doesn’t want to meet you.

If you’re not careful, the Gremlin can get so nasty you’ll wind up reluctant to ever take a risk again.  You erect walls. You avoid risk. You play it safe, because it hurts too much to fail.

But it doesn’t have to go down this way. Here’s how I handle situations like this.

Try letting your Gremlin go nuts. Then invite your Inner Pilot Light to tell you the truth.

My inner dialogue goes something like this.

The Showdown

The Gremlin:  Who did you think you were anyway, trying to pose as some spiritual teacher, when you’re just fumbling along like everyone else? No wonder nobody signed up. I wouldn’t trust you to guide me spiritually either.

Inner Pilot Light: Oh Gremlin, Gremlin, Gremlin… must you always be so unkind? Can’t you just be proud of her for trying something new, for following her heart, for being brave? So what if it didn’t work out? It’s not because she wouldn’t have done a good job leading people spiritually in her own fumbling way. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

The Gremlin (plugging ears):  I can’t hear you Inner Pilot Light. Lissa, maybe you’ve had a few successes lately, but they were just flukes. This proves what you really know – that you’re not like those other people who did this kind of work. You’re not one of them.  You’re just some cheap wanna-be. If you were the real deal, people would have signed up.  You’re just a fraud. You should just go back to the hospital and deliver babies or perform surgeries. At least you’re a real doctor. That way you can earn some reliable money and take care of your family in a grown-up way, rather than trying to make a living with these pie-in-the-sky ideas.

Inner Pilot Light: Don’t listen, Lissa. It’s not true. Don’t take this personally. Remember, when things are meant to happen, they’re easy. They flow. The clients show up. You get signs that you’re on the right path. When it’s not easy, it’s not because you’re not valuable, it’s because you’re supposed to go left, when you wanted to go right. Or it’s because the timing isn’t right. Maybe you’re meant to launch this program next fall. Or maybe you’re supposed to be freed up this fall so you can work on your next book. I can’t say why people didn’t show up, but I can say this. Don’t let this fumble keep you from daring to dream, from taking risks, or from pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.  Trust me, you’re valuable. You matter, whether or not people sign up for your programs.

Finding Peace After Disappointment

And just like that, I started to bounce back. As Brené Brown writes in her wonderful new book Daring Greatly, “Shame resilience is the ability to say ‘This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.”

You can move on, Gremlin. My value is courage. And I was just courageous. And I vow to keep being courageous, even if it means future failure and disappointment.

When I wrote to my friend and art mentor Nicholas Wilton and told him that my program had failed, he wrote this in response:

I have told myself, as well as my daughters growing up, that when faced with a missed cue, a setback when you’re used to winning, it’s an opportunity for remembering about humility. A little air letting out of the ego balloon is not a bad thing. It makes you a better listener, and it allows you to relate and help others when they come to you for support regarding the same kinds of let downs in their own lives.

A few days earlier, right after I got off stage speaking at a big conference, Nick had confessed his own failure to me. He had been paid to get up on stage and give a speech, and when he got up there, he realized that he had lost his speech notes.  Right there in the spotlight, every word he planned to say escaped him. He stood there in front of thousands of people in total silence for over five minutes before getting his act together and finding his voice. When he got off stage, the audience showered him with compassion. They realized that it takes guts to get up on stage in the first place, and they appreciated his bravery more than they judged his failure.

Nick is right.  Winning is not the goal. Sometimes the soul’s journey is to learn to fail well and to grow in compassion for others who face the inevitable disappointments in life.

And so, my friends, I decided to share this story with you. I don’t want you to think I’m perfect or that I always succeed. And I don’t expect that of you either. Within our imperfections and failures lies true intimacy, and I value that more.

So tell me, can you relate to my story? Have you tried and failed? Have you felt disappointed? Are you able to be kind to yourself when you do?

Bouncing back and feeling optimistic about whatever’s next,

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