Failing Forward

music_written_400When I was in high school, I played flute in the band. I was not musically talented. No family member pressured me to join. Perhaps worst of all, I didn’t really even have any great desire to be good at playing the flute (presumably if I did, I would have practiced more!) I was just, quite honestly, not very good. That didn’t stop me from continuing to try, until I wised up my last year and decided to focus my efforts on areas where I was at least a bit more talented.

I have several embarrassing moments that stand out from my high school band experience, mostly ones that highlight just how unskilled I was at my chosen activity. And while I doubt I would repeat the experience if I were to somehow be transported back to high school to live it all over again (heaven forbid), I do think there’s something valuable about being, well, bad at something.

Most of us spend our days with activities and jobs we are mostly skilled at performing. By the time we’re adults, we have generally figured out the areas in which we’re talented, and we spend our time on those. We tend to choose hobbies in which we excel, or at least enjoy the attempt, and ideally, we’ve chosen our careers based on talents we possess. And while all those things are normal and healthy, this Lenten season I was reminded that sometimes it’s good to be bad at something. Sometimes it’s good to try but fail. There’s a lesson in failure that success can never quite teach.

My music career was left behind in high school, but I have distinct memories from my attempt that have stayed with me. I know what it’s like to not be good at something, and I remember how it felt when everyone else was better. There’s a humility in failure that we as adults squelch. Usually we try to help others avoid it as well, including our children. While that’s understandable, and perhaps even noble, we would do well to remember that failure teaches a great lesson. Failure teaches us that we are not perfect, that we have limitations, and the humility we find there builds character that success cannot create.

One of the things I love about the small church I now attend is that no one seems to be afraid of failure. We craft services that may not be well-attended or much appreciated. We change the order of worship in ways that may not flow. We teach lessons that may not connect. Granted, this is much easier in a college town, with a small-ish crowd that is not very concerned with “how we did it last year” or even a particularly orderly way of doing it this year. But that flexibility gives us something, I believe. It teaches us to try. It allows us to stretch. It doesn’t particularly care if things do not go as planned. This year, for the first time, our church planned a Maundy Thursday service in a member’s home. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t attended by hundreds, or even dozens, of people. Would we do it again the same way next year? I don’t know. But it was lovely and meaningful in its own way, and it would have remained just a thought if we were afraid of failure.

I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Robert H. Schuller, which says: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” We all have ideas, grand dreams or inspirations which all too often remain just that. May we not be afraid to make them realities, or at least to try and do so. Not every attempt will be a success, but we will learn something in the failure that we could not learn otherwise. We will be braver for having tried and wiser for having failed.

The Ash Wednesday service I attended this year at The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Starkville, MS, included a sermon by the Rev. Laurence Wainwright-Maks encouraging us to be open to “failing forward.” This phrase is based on a publication by The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Old Bridge, NJ, naming 40 things to give up for Lent, and number one was “the fear of failure”. May we not be afraid to put ourselves out there, and fall flat. May we not be hesitant to act, even when we are unsuccessful. May we spend more than just the Lenten season embracing risk, even where failure is possible.

I love the idea of failing forward, and I hope that’s how I spend my days, even now after Lent. Failing, but always moving forward. Failing, but remaining humble. Failing, but discovering: something about myself, something about the world, something about my God.

Photo Credit: Donyale Leslie

Photo Credit: Donyale Leslie

Kimberly McClung DeVries was raised in a minister’s family, first overseas as missionaries and then in Georgia. She attended the University of Georgia to receive a degree in telecommunications, worked briefly in that field, and then went to law school instead, also in Athens. She has worked as a public defender and for a legal aid agency, and now resides in Mississippi with her husband and two boys. Kimberly is trying to grow by pushing herself out of her comfort zone. To that end, she has a toddler and a baby, both boys, works full time as a lawyer, and is also helping her husband survive his PhD.

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  1. Nancy Starr says

    This reminds me of the struggle I had in passing a French class, which I attributed later to being the best preparation for teaching. It helped me realize that one can study and work very hard and not make the “A” and life really does go on. As I result, I often reminded my students that my expectation was they put forth their very best effort and if the grade was C and that was their best, then that was acceptable. I still use my “French debacle” with teachers and students when appropriate. Really enjoyed your article! Great insight!