A lot of smart people have spent a lot of words talking about the upside of failure.
It’s all in the data: the lessons, the learning, the flex of new muscles, the accrued effect of resiliency. Failure is the best teacher, they say. Failure is a stepping stone to greatness, Oprah says. The number of Michael Jordan’s career missed shots and lost games is a meme.
As an Enneagram 3, I don’t care for this.
All nine types have their crucibles, but the 3’s are disproportionately averse to failure because our success (or lack of) is tied directly and irrevocably to our worth, obvi.
It’s so simple: I earn your love by never making mistakes and getting everything right/perfect. That is why you love me. All I have to do is never let you or anyone down ever. Just for fun, I like to make the general standard high, unsustainable, and mostly unreachable just to keep it interesting. A lovely template for a super-easy life. What could go wrong?
I know experientially that failure has grown me up more than all successes combined, but only because I had to accidentally live it out. I did not go gently into those good nights. There was no mature embracing of defeat, certainly no risk-tolerant preamble: “This may not work out but I look forward to all I will learn regardless!” Absolutely not. I run screaming from failure like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
Unfortunately, the analytics hold up. The WAY I hate this. There is something mysterious about steering into the curve of failure that yields a high return. (Also, please note my nerdy accounting terms to discuss a very emotional landscape. Why am I like this. Give me a heart, Wizard.)
In January 2020, I received a text from my friend Jonathan: “Jen, you are about to get a call from an unknown number. It is the White House. Answer it.” What a boring Monday. I was then invited by Kamala Harris’s team to give the closing prayer for the National Prayer Breakfast the morning of Joe Biden’s inauguration hosted by the Washington National Cathedral. A low-key prayer blessing the office of the presidency and asking for wisdom to govern the most powerful country in the free world. I received this invitation with a calm, cool collectedness (opposite day).
This was highly planned and choreographed naturally, and I received the prayer to deliver; the “Prayer for our Country” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. Had I been operating in my integrity, I would have spent my prep time absorbing that liturgy and actually preparing my heart as a spiritual authority. But because it was covid, I’d just lost my marriage, and I was in a freefall, I spent the majority of my prep time thinking about my outfit and makeup. Meaning, once I realized I’d only be reading a prayer, not writing an original, I set it aside because I am good at reading. It was my highest score on the ACT.
Again, Covid times, so the prayer service was virtual that year. I set up my camera, arranged my background, perfected my (top up) outfit, made sure I had fresh lash extensions. I looked good, and like Jesus said, it is what is on the outside that counts. My clock countdown began from three minutes: “Two minutes, Jen…one more minute…stand by…3, 2, 1…”
And from my printed off paper, I read the first line of the prayer:
“Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.”
My blood went cold. It felt like fuzzy white noise in my head, like I lost the signal in a rainstorm. I honestly can’t remember the rest of it. I finished reading the prayer and clicked off the live stream. I sat there blinking at my camera, aware that I’d just endorsed Manifest Destiny as a spiritual leader on a national platform. In a full face of makeup in my Grown Lady Blazer and tasteful earrings, I crawled under my covers and tried to stave off the horror.
An hour later, I sent my team a text, the team that had posted and boosted this monumental prayer service: “I can’t stand by this. I need to make a statement against my prayer.”
They were…unconvinced: “Jen, no one has said anything. We don’t see any negative comments. I think you’ll be creating a fire where there is none. Can you just let it ride?”
Let me be clear: these are people of high integrity. They are not charlatans. But they are business people who simply didn’t see a crisis while their boss was under the covers in her small pearl earrings. They perceived an overreaction. I perceived a character breach. I am willing to let down virtually the entirety of the internet, but when I have wronged my community members on the margins, I am ruined until I address it.
So within two hours, I posted the following:
“Happy January 21, dears. It was truly an honor to join so many faith leaders this morning for the National Prayer Service. The words were filled with hope and love and healing, and Dr. William Barber’s homily was straight holy fire. I was proud to offer the final liturgical prayer which was written by the organizers to serve as an anchor. I have one regret and thus apology. The very first sentence thanked God for giving us this land as our heritage.
He didn’t. He didn’t give us this land. We took this land by force and trauma. It wasn’t an innocent divine transaction in which God bestowed an empty continent to colonizers. This is a shiny version of our actual history. If God gave this land to anyone, it was to the Native community who always lived here.
That line. I knew it as soon as I said it. And I panicked and froze and then just kept going. I am so sorry, community. Primarily sorry to my Native friends. It MATTERS to me that we reckon with our history of white supremacy and the lies we surrounded it with, and I am filled with regret that I offered yet another hazy, exceptional rendition of the origin story of colonization.
I can’t go on without apologizing. My stomach hurt all day. If I could change it, I would say this:
‘God, may we continue to be a people who reckon with our violent history, repent from the unjust systems we built, denounce white supremacy in all its forms past and present, and continue to work together to form a more perfect union.’”
I then received the criticism I deserved. Why didn’t you critique the prayer in advance? How cavalier can you be with such a big platform? How could this only occur to you in real time? You collaborated with the prevalent erasure of Indigenous people because you were careless. We trusted you.
Not one word of a lie.
I engaged dozens of offline phone calls, emails, and group texts from friends and colleagues who were disappointed. I felt the dark sting of shame. As a supposed leader on the side of disenfranchised communities against injustice, I participated in white supremacy on arguably the largest platform I’d ever been given. It was horrible. It felt so bad in my bones. I was completely embarrassed and full of regret.
But damn that thing about failure. Because what happened in the apology and ownership, the subsequent hard conversations, the rebuilding of trust, and the personal lessons was growth.
It became (ultimately) a safer community for my people. It was the elevation of an important discussion on colonization and racism. It was the maturity accelerant of humility. It was setting an example of sincere remorse. It was deepening the likelihood of repair in other zip codes. It taught me that every single word I say or write matters, and it is my responsibility to lead with great care, and if I phone that in, I don’t deserve to lead my community.
Hard lessons, all. But good ones. Growth that ultimately produced better fruit.
So I guess the thing about failure is true. If faced, if reckoned with, if even embraced like the teacher that it is, failure can turn us into better versions of ourselves. It can create a safer world, a kinder neighborhood, a wiser community. Failure can serve us. Now, resisting and denying it won’t do us any favors at all; it won’t even preserve our preferred narrative because people are on to us. A person pretending they didn’t fail undercuts everything true and good and possible.
But admitting and embracing failure, making amends when they are necessary, and changing course based on the lessons is the path toward growth and healing, connection and justice, love and peace. I don’t love the system but here we are.
Cozy up with your failures. Throw a blanket over their lap and pour them a cup of tea. Pull in close, and listen to everything they have to teach you.