Beyond Failure

One can study a caterpillar forever and never be able to predict a butterfly. 
Buckminster Fuller

I have been thinking about the difference between failure and success. I decided at the beginning of 2010 that I wanted to understand and experience success. But 2010 feels like I learned more about failure, endings, loss, and releasing all my ideas of what success is—and what I consider failure to be. 

As of this writing, this has been the year I have seen the edifice of my life crumble, and all the fond hopes and dearly held beliefs burned away in the fires of an unrelenting financial struggle and watching the world I knew dying. If that sounds dramatic, so it has been. But the greater drama has been played out inside me as I questioned everything I thought I knew. 

The year also brought great gifts. Though the twenty-plus-year book publishing career imploded (actually started falling apart in mid-2008) I am now at the beginning of a career writing for the healthcare industry, discovering that I had unknowingly prepared for writing about integrative medicine just by following my interests, back in the day when the Christian publishers I worked with thought such stuff was “woo woo” or even of the devil. Now it’s the stuff of everyday conversation with the people I work with—doctors and healthcare practitioners who are finding new ways to help others heal themselves. From aromatherapy to energy medicine, healing touch to meditation, my explorations into the alternative world of medicine paralleled my spiritual researches, both leading me away from conventional mainstream thinking.

But following my heart did have an effect on my pocketbook—and that was not always positive. I have paid a price for my choices. One acquisitions editor told me he could not present my next book proposal because I was becoming a “universalist.” I wasn’t even sure what that was at the time, but I knew meant that a publisher I had long been affiliated with was no longer an option for my author career. I felt like I had been kicked out of the family.

A couple of years after that, another publisher declared bankruptcy a month after publishing my book, and it took me a year to get the rights back. More recently, in June 2009 my publisher put my books out of print and my agent let me go. From mid-2008 through 2010, the industry I knew so well, including the Christian book industry, has changed beyond recognition. All of the people I worked with for so many years were laid off, and the world I knew and loved (and sometimes feared) disappeared. 

There is a new infrastructure being built, which is why I am self-publishing my books on Smashwords and giving my blog readers links to leaders in the new technology paradigm like Chris Guillebeau, Seth Godin, Christine Kane, Pamela Slim, Mark Coker, and more. But the publishing infrastructure is still building, and has yet to replace the financial structure that once supported me. We are all learning together, and following the early adapters is my best clue to creating a success with my books, e-books, and blog.

I moved to Nashville in 1993 for the songwriting, and that world has changed even more drastically. At least book publishers learned something from the awful example of the music industry, and have worked to adapt to changes in technology instead of fighting the inevitable. But a whole world of music publishing disappeared, and many gifted songwriters have seen a way of life that allowed them to live off their songs disappear. Like everyone else, they are finding ways to adapt, but many dreams have died and skills learned for one way of life have been set aside to adapt to another reality.

If the caterpillar knew its destiny, would it mourn the loss of its caterpillar existence? The caterpillar is born with a set of cells called imaginal buds. They are dormant until the time is ripe, and then they awaken and multiply. At first the caterpillar’s immune system attacks these cells, perceiving them as invaders. Yet it is the caterpillar’s own genes that are doing the work of transformation that will lead to a greater destiny. When the caterpillar’s body can no longer fight the growing invasion of imaginal buds, it spins a cocoon. Inside the cocoon, the caterpillar’s body is no longer recognizable, and all boundaries dissolve. Only when the creature emerges from its cocoon will this process of loss and disintegration reveal itself as a butterfly. 

We who are in process must be wary of labeling ourselves as “successes” or “failures.” We are too close to the situation to see clearly. At age thirty-two, Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, contemplated suicide. A series of business failures made him feel that the best thing he could do was to relieve the world of his unwanted presence. He didn’t commit suicide, but he did decide he would live as if he had died that night. He committed to questioning continuously, “What is it on this planet that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?” Instead of trying to avoid failure or create success, he just kept asking questions, following his instincts, and contributing to each situation as it arose. Working for the universe instead of himself, he made a lasting contribution that is still affecting our society today.

So, when I look at my losses and “failures” I understand that my view is too limited, and there is a larger context that connects unseen threads, and what might be considered a failure in one era could be the genesis of a success in another era. How many artists and writers and inventors were laughed at in their day, only to be lionized in a later era for being visionaries and pioneers? 

What is happening in the moment is never the entire story of what is actually going on. Buckminster Fuller liked to point out that the honeybee thinks it’s the honey that is important. But the bee is nature’s way of cross pollinating the flowers, and without that ceaseless worker doing his tiny bit, there would be no fruits and flowers for the world to enjoy. 

I now ask myself, “What can I do today to offer my gift and serve the greater good? Who is in front of me to serve? How can I approach everything I do more creatively, with greater love?” This leaves behind the judgment of “success” or “failure” and makes way for a greater good than my limited mind can conceive. 

The dear friends in the book and music industry who are struggling (or finding unexpected success in the reinvention of their careers) are creating more than a career shift. I see the development of a deeper and stronger character, and more compassion for themselves and others. A former rock star or bestselling author (or songwriter or author who never experienced success in the old paradigm) can be reborn to a new life that contributes to the greater good, even if that greater good includes a more humble, invisible service than before. 

It is time to move beyond labels of “success” or “failure.” It’s never that cut-and-dried. We are all in process, and we are all beautiful children of the Most High. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we can truly live this prayer in our lives, we will have truly lived. 


Failure is the tuition you pay for success.
Walter Brunell

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Confucius 

I have not failed. I've just found 10, 000 ways that won't work. 
Thomas A. Edison 

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.
John W. Gardner

Never walk away from failure. On the contrary, study it carefully and imaginatively for its hidden assets. 
Michael Korda

Those who have failed miserably are often the first to see God's formula for success. 
Erwin W. Lutzer

We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened. But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen. 
Thomas Merton

There are defeats more triumphant than victories.
— Michel de Montaigne

I thank God for my handicaps for, through them, I have found myself, my work, and my God.
— Helen Keller

The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success. 
Paramahansa Yogananda

Failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved. Success is the lurking-place of failure; but who can tell when the turning point will come?
— Lao-Tse 

Flops are a part of life’s menu, and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses.
— Jane Russell

The only thing that is worse than learning from experience is not learning from experience.
Linda Ellerby

Success is overrated. Everyone craves it despite daily proof that man’s real genius lies in quite the opposite direction. Incompetence is what we are good at: it is the quality that marks us off from animals and we should learn to revere it.
Stephen Pile (author of The Incomplete Book of Failures: The Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain)

Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure.
— Norman Vincent Peale

Fred Astaire was described by one studio that rejected him as a balding, skinny actor who can dance a little.

Thomas Edison’s first teacher called him “addled,” and others said he would never make a success of anything.

Einstein’s parents were afraid he was retarded. A teacher told him he would never amount to anything.

Puccini, the great composer, had a music teacher who said that he had no talent and gave up on him.

The University of Vienna rejected Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics. One of his professors wrote, “Mendel lacks the requisite clarity of thought to be a scientist.”

We don’t like their sound. Groups with guitars are on the way out.
— Decca Recording Company, rejecting the Beatles

Affirmative prayer

What is it on this planet that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?
What can I do today to offer my gift and serve the greater good? 
Who is in front of me to serve? 
How can I approach everything I do more creatively, with greater love?
I commit myself to doing good work today.
I’ll take care of the quantity and do my best.
I trust God with the quality, knowing that the results are not my responsibility.
I release all judgments, knowing that love is the only measure of success that counts. 

Introducing an inspiring friend: 

On that same note, here’s a bit from Seth Godin on interpreting criticism: 

Criticism of your idea is usually based on assumptions about the world as it is. Jackson Pollock could never have made it as a painter in the world as it was. And Harry Potter was rejected by just about everyone because for it to succeed the way kids read would have to change.

The useful element of this sort of criticism isn't the fact that people embracing the status quo don't like your idea. Of course they don't. The interesting question is: what about the world as it is would have to change for your idea to be important?

Starbucks had no chance if they were going to focus on the sort of person who bought coffee at Dunkin Donuts or a diner, and the iPad couldn't possibly succeed if people were content to use computers the way they were already using them.

Keep that in mind the next time a gatekeeper or successful tastemaker explains why you're going to fail.

Check out the entire Sept 10, 2010 blog entry at