Books: Pema Chödrön’s “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”, as reviewed by Pranada Devi

Few people get the privilege of having their grandmother speak at their university commencement ceremony. But if you are the granddaughter of Pema Chödrön, you’re one of them. And now everyone can read the words delivered by this grandmother-turned-Buddhist-nun and teacher at Naropa University in 2014. The Sounds True book “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better” presents the text of this speech as well as a special one-on-one follow-up interview between Chödrön and Sounds true founder Tami Simon about failure, regret and leaning in to the mystery of life.

Pema Chödrön has published seven books and six audiobooks on Buddhist practice, and heads a monastery for Western monks in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Quotes from her teachings are regularly set to pretty backgrounds and Instagrammed. Parvati Magazine has reviewed her works before. So we were intrigued when we learned about “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”.

Entrepreneur and bestselling author Seth Godin writes the foreword for this piece, describing Chödrön as “generous and irrepressible”. Godin is no stranger to uncertainty or the value of staying present and taking risks in the approach he recommends for both business and life. We’d like to see his endorsement bring more people in to get to know Pema Chödrön and her work.

Failure is a daring choice of subject for a commencement address. This is typically a time when people think with anticipation or trepidation about the success they want to find in life. Chödrön quite usefully deflates all that anticipation and gets straight to the underlying fear: what if we fail? She guides the listeners, and reader, past the dangers of looking to blame others, or think negatively about oneself, into just sitting with the raw vulnerability that failure brings. In that raw place, we can actually find tenderness and possibility.

In the follow-up interview with Tami Simon, Chödrön dives into the issue of feeling guilt for having genuinely done something wrong, and how to keep from extrapolating that into self-loathing and amplifying a sense of “me”. She unflinchingly shares her regrets around the end of her first marriage and its effects on her children, making the point that regret does not have to be the seed of self-loathing. It can be the seed of compassion and empathy, inspiring us to do better in the future and help others more than ever.

The speech is laid out with one or two points on each page, on the right side only, with an abstract illustration on the left consisting of identical spirals. As each page turns, the illustration shifts, taking on form, collapsing, re-forming, collapsing. It’s a way to space out what is not actually a long piece of text. It seemed odd to do this for the speech, then leave the interview – at least as dense in content – unleavened by illustrations.

Any time with the teachings of Pema Chödrön is well spent. My one concern is that “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better” is quite short, consisting of a speech and an interview. It is a bit of a stretch to market it as a full-length book. Beginners seeking to dive deeply into Pema Chödrön’s work may do better with a different volume to start with. But if you already are familiar with Pema Chödrön’s teachings, or you are looking for a thoughtful gift for someone rebuilding after a setback, or you simply wish to engage with the idea of failure and the places our mind goes in its wake, “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better” is worth picking up. It’s on the shelves now at major booksellers and through Sounds True.

pranadawithhostasmallerPranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. She is the editor for Parvati’s new book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”, which has sold out out its first two printing runs.