“Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better” by Pema Chödrön

Fail, Fail Again, Fail BetterI was at a low moment the week before I acquired this book. I felt as if I had failed. My finances were not what I wanted them to be and my relationships weren’t as strong as I wanted them to be. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do and most of my time was spent berating myself about how much of a failure I am. So I was elated when I found this book on Emily’s blog (Books, the Universe, and Everything). I thought it was exactly what I needed and that it would provide some assurance that things would improve and point me in the right direction.

I bought it and quickly, desperately, read it. Within a few minutes, I was done and disappointed. It wasn’t the savior I’d sought and I became angry for having bought it. What a waste of time, I thought. I didn’t even grasp any of the lessons Chödrön tried to impart. The only feature of the book I liked was the cover design.

I forgot what it was that made me decide to reread it but about a month later, I did. On my second read, I was more patient and receptive. I wasn’t searching for a quick fix for my emotions. The change in attitude helped as I was able to catch some of Chödrön’s advice and begin to see the lesson she tries to impart.

Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better is a commencement speech given by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, at her granddaughter’s graduation from the University of Boulder, Colorado back in 2014. The speech is followed by an interview with Chödrön that’s just as insightful if you’re open to the message. Chödrön’s message on embracing failure centers on a quote from the poet Samuel Beckett:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Failure seems like an adverse topic for a commencement speech since graduation is often seen as the beginning of a new adventure in life and we all want to succeed in life; but, as Chödrön points out, many of us aren’t prepared for failure, something we encountered at all stages of life. I agree with this because many of us don’t consider that failure in one venture or area in life could open up opportunities to other things. And that’s one of Chödrön’s messages:

“Mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things.”

When we fail, it leaves us “raw,” vulnerable. We try to move away from that feeling and numb ourselves to it — which I tried to do by purchasing and speeding through this book — but Chödrön advises to instead embrace that feeling and see where it leads. It can lead to deep introspection — as it did for me — or great creation.

Now, I didn’t try applying Chödrön’s advice to myself as I read along. Actually, I returned to the book after I was past feeling like a failure and had learned from my mistake. It was while reading and reflecting on the recent experience that I was able to understand what Chödrön was saying. And, as you can see, I agree with her.

The part of the book that really stood out to me, though, is when Chödrön discusses how we communicate with ourselves when we feel like a failure or have made a mistake. What is your self-talk like at this moment? Mine is pretty harsh, which makes me feel even worse. Chödrön’s advice is to “rephrase the self-critical talk so it’s more gentle and positive,” which I think will be difficult to do at first. This gentle talk is not to absolve ourselves from our mistake, but to help ourselves to move on. Well, that’s how I interpreted that section. When I berate myself with harsh self-talk after a major fuck up, it’s hard for me to move on from the event much less find a solution. It makes me afraid to try anything new and so I get stuck in a rut.

A gentle, positive talk would be more helpful and reassuring and will help me to be active in possibly finding a solution or simply learning and moving on rather than replaying the mistake in my head and being stuck in a loop.

Overall: ★★★★☆

I gave it three on the first read. The book imparts a great message, one that many of us need to hear. I preferred the interview at the end more than the speech because Chödrön speaks more about harsh self-talk there, but the whole book is great.

I won’t lie though, I still think I didn’t need to purchase the book just because it’s not as big as I thought it would be (silly reason). But I do like the presentation. As mentioned before, I love the cover design and I also like that the symbol on the cover is copied throughout the book, sometimes in patterns that reflect Chödrön’s message. So though I don’t think I needed to buy the book, I’m glad I got it. It looks good. Feels good too. Some nice paper there.


9 thoughts on ““Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better” by Pema Chödrön

  1. I’m so glad to hear you ended up finding it a little helpful after all! Reading your review was interesting, because you approached it as someone who is new to books about Buddhism (I think so anyway – is that correct?). This book is very subtly Buddhist, it’s not very robust in its message, it’s just brief teaching on one core part of the practice. But reading your thoughts made me realize that one of the reasons I responded so strongly to such a short book is because it surfaced in the front of my mind all the other books on Buddhism I’ve been reading lately. Maybe without that background it doesn’t pack as heavy as a punch, given its size. If you ended up enjoying the overall theme, you might like to explore some longer books about Buddhist practice, which would give you more of a base to start from. The Buddha Walks in to a Bar is a good one, and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s books are wonderful too – most bookstores have a pretty large selection of Hanh’s work, so you could flip through them and find one that looks like it resonates with you.

    Just some thoughts if you’re interested in reading more on Buddhism, I find the books I’ve read have really helped me take a different perspective, one that is more forgiving to myself and others.


    1. You know, I didn’t consider that Chodron is a Buddhist nun while reading. I read the flap so I was aware of that fact before and after reading the book but while reading, I didn’t consider the Buddhist aspect* (not sure if that’s the word I want) of the book though Chodron spoke a bit about her journey. I guess I saw it more as self-help since that’s what I was looking for. We see what we want to see, I guess.

      I’ve considered checking out some Buddhism books before because I think it matches the way I think about spirituality but I’ve yet to do so. Thanks for the recommendations though. I’d love to take a look at them once I work up the courage to.


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