The Paradoxical Practice of
Opening to Failure

If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand.

Lao-tzu, Tao te Ching

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine what would happen if I told you to walk on a six-inch wide plank suspended one foot above the ground. Easy, right. You would probably jump onto the plank and effortlessly stroll across it.

Now imagine I raised the stakes. Instead of suspending it one foot above the ground, imagine that I ran the plank across the top of two Manhattan skyscrapers. This time your walk might not be so effortless. Looking down at the miniature yellow cabs and pedestrians 80 stories below, you would probably notice tension arising in your body and mind.

It’s the same six-inch plank as before.  And yet what was once an effortless and simple act has turned into a seemingly impossible and terrifying feat.

We live in a culture that has turned our professional, athletic, and artistic acts into a similarly high-stakes tight rope walk.

Think about how we talk about success and failure.  We live according to mantras like: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” “second place is the first loser,” and “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

All of this has created a cultural phobia of failure.  Failing in your career or even in your weekend hobbies isn’t like walking across the plank suspended one foot above the ground.   You can’t just fall off and get back up.   Failure is a kind of death.  It’s the professional equivalent of an 80-story free fall onto Madison Avenue.

Here’s the problem.  By creating patterns of stress and resistance, this phobia of failure not only has toxic effects on the body and mind.  It also has a paradoxical effect:  it makes failure more, rather than less likely, to actually happen.  The more we resist, fight, and close to failure, the more we turn our imagined worst-case scenarios into reality.

This is why it’s easy to walk the plank at a height of one foot and almost impossible at 80 stories:  our resistance to falling makes it all the more likely that we will actually fall.

What’s the way out of this paradox?  The only way out is to go in.  This is the radical wisdom of Lao-tzu.  In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching, he advises:

“If you want to shrink something,You must first allow it to expand. If you want to get rid of something, You must first allow it to flourish.”

So if you want to get rid of your fear of failure, you must allow it “to flourish.”  Rather than resisting it, open to failure.  Relax into the idea of even your most catastrophic career and personal failures.  Once you open to failure, its hold over you will begin to dissolve.

For this week’s experiment, let’s explore this radical move.  Rather than resisting, let’s see what happens when we open fully to failure.

The practice is simple.

Step 1Noticing Closure – Notice when you feel closed to failure.  Your thoughts are a great first indicator.  Notice each time you think thoughts like, “I can’t…,” “what would happen if…,” or “what would other people think if…”  Also pay attention to your breath and body for clues to when you are resisting failure.  Notice when you feel tension, when your posture collapses, and when your breath tightens.  These are all signs that you are resisting – that you are closed to failure.

Step 2Open – This is the key to the practice.  As soon as you feel resistance and closure, see if you can open to it.  Allow your body to relax, breathe deep into your belly, and welcome even the most horrifying forms of failure.

Opening to failure is different from seeking it out.  It doesn’t mean that you actively try to fail.  Opening to failure is an inner state.  It allows the cultural phobia of failure to loosen and opens the door for new and unimaginable forms of success to emerge.

What do you think?  What happens when you allow the phobia of failure “to expand” and “to flourish”?

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  1. Evan B says:


    This really hits home.

    Yet, I’m not clear what you mean here.

    Could you illustrate with an example from either your life or from someone you know?

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