I had breakfast yesterday morning with a friend from seminary. She was telling me about a leadership conference that she had recently hosted. Pastors of thriving congregations had come to speak, but for her one stood out. It was a man we both knew and admired.
“Gary told us about a failure,” she said. “All the other people thumped their chests and told all the great things they’d done, but Gary said, ‘I could tell you about this or that program that’s gone great guns, but I suspect we can all point to one thing that’s going well, that we’re proud of. But I want to tell you about a failure—and how I grew through it, became a better leader.’”
In that famous, aphoristic poem, “If,” Rudyard Kipling writes,
If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
And treat those two imposters just the same . . .
Wise people, like Gary, know that “triumph” and “success” are the terms the system uses to define what it approves—and what you should seek. “Disaster” and “failure” are the system’s labels, pasted over everything it fears. When you’re making your way in the world, you buy into all that, take it as gospel truth. But then, after a time, you see your “successes” fade. They were good and somehow terribly important at the time, but now they don’t move you (or anyone else…no one but you seems to remember them!). And you discover—in wild paradox—that your “failures” are in fact the places where your heart is fully open, where you learn the most, grow more deeply human, connect most powerfully with other men and women.
There’s a poem by Antonio Machado that speaks powerfully to this.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
That’s why I loved hearing about my friend Gary. The golden bees have so clearly been at work in his honeyed soul.