Last year, ordained Buddhist nun and popular author Pema Chödrön (When Things Fall Apart, Shambhala Publications; 2010) told Naropa University’s graduates at the sold-out Macky Auditorium that “if there is one skill that is not stressed very much, but is really needed, it is knowing how to fail well.” The address was seen by more than 10,000 people internationally via live webcast, according to Naropa officials, and Chödrön’s words inspired a book Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice For Leaning Into the Unknown (Sounds True, Sept. 1). We spoke with founder and publisher of Sounds True Tami Simon about Chödrön’s speech as well as Ms. Simon’s interview with the author, which appears as the afterword of Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.
You took the wrong road on the way to Pema Chödrön’s cabin and describe your feelings of anxiety and blame for being late to the interview. Failure, of course, was the topic of your conversation with her. How were you feeling when you drove back down the road after the interview?
Relief and happiness because I felt the interview went really well. Pema shared a lot about her personal story, her own life experience with failure and regret and her experience as a young mother. I was so happy that that level of disclosure was part of our conversation.
She’s often written about Buddhist approaches to failure and fear. What particularly excites you about Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better?
Her emphasis on the bravery that is required to step into the unknown. We all have to make that move at different points in our life, and I love her emphasis on how the bravery that’s really required is our willingness to stay with our own feelings of discomfort. That’s what meditation practice trains us in, we become strong in our ability to be with what’s uncomfortable. The more we’re able to [do that], the more we develop what Pema calls unconditional confidence.
Do you know why she is such an effective communicator about responding to life’s difficulties?
Part of [it] is she speaks from her own experience with so much genuineness and humility and lack of posturing or putting herself above other people in any way. She has suffered in her own life and is willing to talk about it in a very vulnerable way. I think [this is what] makes her work so approachable, there’s a sense that she really understands what’s she’s talking about from the inside.
When you and Pema Chödrön talked about the failures of an aging body, she said spirit and attitude are everything. How are your spirit and attitude after 30 years running a publishing business?
[I am] taking great enjoyment and relish and pleasure in working with other people, having the privilege to work with transformative ideas and transformative teachings. That’s what keeps a sense of buoyancy and flight, if you will, a sense of soaring in my spirit. When Pema says, “spirit is everything,” it’s that sense of delight, and finding what we can delight in every day, even in the small, especially in the small everyday moments in our life.