Writings by Cole Huffman

In Praise of Failure

It epitomizes contempt to say to someone I hope you fail at everything you do. But what if I told you I hope you experience some failure at points? I am actually serving you, saying this.

During the Winter Olympics, an article appeared on Scott Hamilton. He was a figure skating medalist at the 1984 Games, and a longtime analyst for the event. “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career—41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche—the one that reminds you to just get up.”

That psychic muscle is built in failure. Spiritual muscle is built this way too. Not all failure is the same. There are catastrophic failures with consequences one may not be able to get up from. It’s one thing for an Olympian to fall thousands of times on his way to a gold medal. Scott Hamilton had to get his jumps and signature backflip right, but even with all his falls in years of practice and competitions, he was clearly not a failure at skating.

I recall reading that President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary believed no one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who had not suffered major disappointments in life. Major disappointments as a result of others failures or one’s own. Johnson’s press secretary believed this because he believed the responsibility of working there was too great to be entrusted to people who weren’t painfully aware of how badly things can go wrong.

Pastors of all people should be aware of how badly things can go wrong. To the better if we’re painfully aware from having shares in failure. I don’t mean moral failures, which are catastrophic for pastors. Nor do I mean chronic failure, where one repeats the same mistakes over and again because he is lazy or disorganized or otherwise incompetent in the work. Vocational intelligence is, more or less, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. But I pass on to younger men interested in this work what someone observed eons ago: that a pastor should have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.

Why a rhino hide? Because others are going to fail you through their critiques and attacks, but you’re going to fail them in more ways besides, and if you want to quit over those failures you miss your best opportunities for growth. I blush to recall the time I, from the pulpit, mocked the side effects of an anxiety medication. I thought I was being cute, but I sent a young mother into the foyer crying. She had witnessed her ex-husband murder her father, and was on that medication as a result.

I failed her that Sunday, miserably. She was gracious to forgive me. But I learned something about the hurts in a congregation, something I probably would not have learned any other way except through that failure.

That’s the hard part of this: What have I had to learn through failure because I wouldn’t learn it any other way? Ambrose Bierce, a nineteenth century novelist, said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” I’ve been there and done that too in preaching. I regret it. Wish I could have those Sundays back.

I’m a failed church planter. The church I helped start years ago is doing very well today. But though I poured my heart into it, I wasn’t right for the work. I see that now.

Some would say I failed in parenting because of the troubles of one of my children. Most of the parents Lynn and I met at drug treatment centers and therapy groups feel like failures. Among the many things we parents of addicts have to learn is every which way we’re prone to rescue our children from themselves. We convince ourselves it is to keep them from more failure, but we’re almost guaranteeing their ongoing failings when we rescue them. It’s counterintuitive to every parental impulse, and cosmically unfair to the conscientious parent, but the boy really does have to be on his own. I don’t mean not having a recovery community around him. That’s essential. But Mom and Dad can’t lead it. He has to stand in that community on his own two legs to walk in recovery truly. I’d never have known that if I hadn’t walked this broken road in parenting.

I’m not a determinist when it comes to failure. I’m a “hopetimist.” When I sit with younger pastors, or parents, and tell them I hope you’ll know some failures along the way—nothing catastrophic or chronic, but I hope you’ll know some failures nonetheless—I say this to them because I believe growing is the most important form of succeeding. And I don’t believe we grow without some experiences in failing.

Growth is not automatic from failure, no. But if one is always rescued he doesn’t grow. If one doesn’t rhino line his hide for staying in the good work when it gets hard (and it will if it’s good work), he doesn’t grow.

And so let us now praise failure. Not for its causes or the pains and confusions it generates. But for the growth in humility and gratitude and perseverance made possible by it.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 2:48 PM
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