of love and failure

Truth: The routines of my daily life depend on good juggling, but sometimes I mess up.

Good showmanship requires that I grab that dropped ball, work it into my routine and never stop smiling, but that doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I’d like. And occasionally, it’s worse–it’s not just one ball that gets dropped.

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j

A few weeks ago, life caught up with me in a large and multicolored explosion. I was late here and half-arsed there, and in a stunning coup-de-grace to my face-saving efforts, I managed to no-show to a meeting full of people gathered to hear me speak.

jYep. That happened.

jAnd because God is twisted– or because this is simply a ridiculously busy time of year for those of us who set watches by church or academic calendars,* I was also on the receiving end of some major ball-dropping.

It was kind of a mess, friends.

In some places, it still is.

And so, waiting for the dust to settle, I have been thinking about failure. And my first question is, why do we let it happen? And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t?

Smiling young woman having an idea with light bulb over her head

As your dutiful enneagram Type 1, my goal when it comes to mistakes is to avoid them entirely. Failing that—and somehow, I often do fail—I simply strive not to repeat them. EVER.

Thus, I’ve been considering a menu of meltdown-prevention plans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: the opportunity to screw up is accorded unequally.

In fact, it is often awarded not necessarily to the most competent individuals, but to those people we love.

That’s right: I am persuaded that when we love others, we give them room to FAIL.

And so, considering weeks like these past ones, I offer this suggestion: we shouldn’t. We simply should not trust one another this much—not if our goal is to avoid disappointment.

Trust means we expect good things, focus less on the bad outcomes that might happen, and thus end up with less of a safety net.

We are putting ourselves at risk, friends.

And so, an alternative: I’ll just do everything.

Scratch that, you do everything. Or maybe I can do what I’m good at, and you’ll do what you’re good at, and nobody should do the things that are hard or risky.

Yeah, right.

We trust, of course, because we have to.  As a people deeply dependent on one another simply to live, the truth is, we have no other choice. Disturbing though this is for my failure-management initiative, it’s actually great news for the missional church. We must trust one another a bit just to get through the days, but as it turns out, we trust even more than we have to when we love one another.

Why? Because it is messy, and risky, and sometimes even a bit miserable when we allow people room to grow. It’s challenging. Our baby birds, or grown-up employees, get into difficult situations, and they bring us with them. And as anyone who has ever been responsible for a toddler (or, I’m told, a teenager) knows—it is really hard to give people the space they need to become something else, because they are going to make a mess. And we have to be willing to hang in there through the entire process, sometimes cringing and gritting our teeth throughout, if we want to see results we can be proud of.

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Who is willing to do that but someone who can continuously hold in their hearts a guiding image of what we might grow to be—even as they step in our spilled milk, or stumble across the holes we dug spinning our wheels?

Our toddlers and teens don’t wait for us to create opportunities for their explorations—whether we’re ready or not, they must grow, and they will seize the attention and resources they need, one way or another. Adults, however, can function in a state of stasis, and this less-risky way of being is highly incentivized in most areas of our lives. And thus, how many of us encounter opportunities in our professional lives to truly grow? To become? To live into potential?


This kind of encouragement requires resources. It takes vision.

There are a few companies famous for devoting time to truly developing their talent pool, but most organizations—and many of us as bosses and leaders—are simply living in the now, feeling relieved just to match present skills with immediate job requirements. “Maintenance” focus is deeply ingrained in short-to-medium-term planning, and it feels much less risky than the alternative.

It is thus counter-cultural to invest this time and care in another—to let him fail so he can grow. A room-to-fail approach requires missional thinking with long-term results in mind. Alternatively, it takes love.

Know a place powered by both?

I do. It’s the thriving church in your community.

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It takes courage to stand as witnesses to potential, but encouragement to grow is exactly what the best lay leadership programs provide.

From finance to teaching to project management to public speaking, we stand ready to challenge and encourage you . . . even when we have to dust you off a few times or bite our nails for awhile while you find a steady foothold.

In working collaboratively with you around your talents and interests, we become part of the forces that call you into your best self. Your next self, shared with us all.

And, inevitably, we open ourselves to disappointment. To hurt, even. You will fall short of the mark sometimes, and we must not only pick up the pieces, but celebrate the progress: when we give you room to fail, we give you room to grow.

Outside of formal leadership training programs, we don’t talk about this much in the adult world.  However, the fail-to-grow (the complete opposite of “failure to grow”) concept is well-known to educators. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range just beyond a person’s current abilities, and the place into which, if properly challenged, they will stretch themselves. The process of providing that challenge is known as “scaffolding”—we are building the supportive framework for what comes next, simply by encouraging the learner to reach up a bit rather than staying where she is comfortable.

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But he might fail: he’s climbing a tree that’s growing even as he climbs, trusting branches to appear, and making the reach on the promise that they will. It’s an uneven and imperfect process. Sometimes things won’t line up. Sometimes growth will slow, other objectives will distract, he’ll need to climb back down for a bit. Sometimes he will even fall.

In the zone of proximal development, some failure is guaranteed. But the zone is where all the growth happens. And we need to be brave enough, missional enough—loving enough—to be willing to go there with one another, again and again and again.

Because as we each grow, our faith communities do, too . . . and the transformation begins in earnest.

Which I’m going to try to remember, myself.  The show must go on.  (And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring part II with you–what happens after we fail: the role of caring confrontation in leadership development.)

Blessings, my people!

j

*Potentially life-saving advice: those of us who do both—the seminarians in your lives, for example—are not to be trifled with in August, December, and April. You have been warned.

One thought on “of love and failure

  1. To know that you are loved is, in part, to understand that you are in a place where it is safe to fail.

    Echoes of our Universalist theologies in this… or maybe that’s just my imagination.

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