Failing Better

Failing better is among the most valuable skills any person can cultivate. It’s especially true for leaders, since among their top jobs is being a role model of healthy action.

Steve Roberts black ink drawing: bird with one elaborate wing with propellor on head
According to a New York Times blog, on the left arm of Stanislas Wawrinka, an increasingly respected competitor in professional tennis, is tattooed a quotation that defines his philosophy of life.  It’s from writer Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail Better.

I would bet that many of the happiest, wisest and exceptionally accomplished people on earth do nothing but attempt to fail better. 

That’s because their life is focused not on what they can win or lose, but on growing their ability to respond to everything with kindness, compassion and understanding.  So-called worldly failure, regardless of how painful, is viewed primarily as a sacred opportunity for cultivating greater self-awareness.  To what end?   To pay attention.  To bring as much of us as we possibly can to here and now.  The better the failure, the richer the opportunity to grow.

Of course the only way to fail better is to risk more: to move beyond our fear of making mistakes, our need to look good, our aversion to conflict, our desire for comfort rather than expansion, our attachment to the illusion of security. 

It helps to be courageous.  Admit there are things essential to your well-being that you will never pursue as well as you might without support.  Identify them.  Ask for help, and actually open yourself to receiving it.  Commit yourself to becoming a master of making and keeping commitments.  Learn to run a meeting in a manner that earns you the eternal gratitude of every other participant.  Forgive everybody everything––for the simple reason that holding on to unforgiveness limits your ability to receive the unending unconditional wisdom the universe surrounds us with at all times.  Attempt to act in a manner that nurtures the entire human family forever.  And so forth.

One doesn’t achieve such aspirations so much as one fails better at them.

Failing better is among the most valuable skills any person can cultivate.  It’s especially true for leaders, since among their top jobs is being a role model of healthy action.  Leaders who don’t fail better may still achieve success on some worldly terms, but they’ll never achieve the only success that’s really worth emulating: being an enthusiastic trudger on the path of responding well to anything.  Staggering onward, rejoicing.


  1. Wow Steve! You have written down something that I have been doing and focusing on for the past 10 years or so. People think I am crazy for the things I attempt, and the goals I commit to, but I know that while it looks crazy, it’s actually what feeds me and drives my rapid spiritual, personal, and professional growth.

    Thank you for putting into words a key part of my approach to life!


    P.S. I love the half plain and half tattooed butterfly/bird.

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth