A New Unity Sunday Gathering
When you came here this morning,
you didn’t know for sure what you would find
This could be a great morning where the music is incredible, the words enlightening, where everyone you like shows up,
and you leave feeling nourished
Or it could be one of those other mornings…
where it just doesn’t seem to work so well.
The musicians not on form,
the minister seems tired and uninspired,
and you leave thinking it would have been better to sleep in.
But you’re here - we’re here - in this place together
We’ve taken a chance to see what happens
We light a candle for uncertainty, for wonder, and for surprise
Let its light remind us that we cannot see what is ahead until and unless we step forward
Morning has come, let us greet this day and whatever comes
Music for Guitar and Stone by Ruth L. Schwartz (adapted)
In music I can love the small failures,
the ones which show how difficult it is:
the young guitarist's fingers slipping,
for an instant, from their climb of chords.
He sits alone on the stage, bright light,
one leg wedged up on a step, his raised knee
round and tender, and the notes like birds
from a vanishing flock, each one more exquisite and lonely;
the fingers part of the hand, yet separate from the hand,
each living muscle married to the whole.
In life the failures feel like they'll kill me,
or you will, or we'll kill each other;
it's so hard to feel the music
moving through us, the larger patterns
of river and mountain, where damage is not separate
from creation, transformation;
where every mistake we make can wash
smooth and clean as stones in water,
then land on shore, then be thrown in again…
I want to sleep for a thousand years, then wake up in some other world
where failure is part of the music, and seen
to make it more beautiful; where the fingers
forgive each other; where we can sit naked again
at the window, watch the notes fly by like birds
who have finally found their way home.
Message, by Andy Pakula
Once upon a time, there were three brothers [wait - no - that is too sexist - three sisters - no, that seems like I’m trying too hard - make it two sisters and one brother - no - no matter how the story turns out then, it will seem to be about gender and that’s not what I’m intending…]
Once upon a time, there were three bears [no, that’s a real story - don’t want that confusion.] Once upon a time, there were three rabbits, no - kittens [no] three young monkeys.
Once upon a time there were three young monkeys.
They lived in a great jungle by the side of a mighty river [no - I think I’ve done the river thing before - cancel the river.] They lived in a great, dense jungle that was rich with food. Most important to the young monkeys, banana trees were plentiful in the jungle. The three monkeys enjoyed eating bananas and had been taught by their elders too climb to a branch, shake it, and then go down to the ground and collect the bananas that had fallen.
It also happens that in this jungle, there were cocoanut trees. There were many kinds of trees, of course, and cocoanuts were just one kind. Mostly, the society of monkeys ignored the big, hard, round, objects that grew on these trees, but as the three young monkeys played in the trees, they came across these strange objects again and again and they became curious.
One day when the three of them were together exploring, One of them grabbed hold of a branch from which the cocoanuts were growing and shook it. Nothing happened. The monkey jumped up and down on the branch. Nothing happened. No cocoanuts fell. “Darn!” he said [no - not “he”] monkey number 1 [no too technical sounding] “Darn” said this first young monkey in the monkey language, and went off to shake banana trees again. No [wait - let’s give them names - monkey names with no obvious gender Oo-oo, Ee-ee, and Ah-ah… Got it!]
Next, having watched Oo-oo, Ee-ee tried shaking a cocoanut branch. Same result. No cocoanuts fell. Not giving up though, Ee-ee grabbed a long branch, carried it up the tree, and swinging it hard - aimed at a large cocoanut. No. Missed it. Try again. No - missed again. Try again - a hit! But no luck. Try again. This time, Ee-ee succeeded in knocking a cocoanut to the jungle floor. Gleefully descending to the fallen cocoanut, Ee-ee approached the cocoanut, grabbed it and tried to pull it open. That didn’t work. Ee-ee tried hitting the cocoanut with a hand, kicking it with a foot, and finally hitting it with a stick. Nothing. And Ee-ee went off to shake banana branches.
Ah-ah had been watching all of the efforts of Oo-oo and Ee-ee. Hmm… thought Ah-ah. “They’ve made a lot of progress. Maybe these hard round things are impossible to open. Maybe there’s nothing inside worth finding, but I’ll give it a try anyway.”
So Ah-ah climbed up a cocoanut tree with a big strong stick in hand, smacked down not one but two cocoanuts, and scampered eagerly to the fallen spheres below.
Inspecting them carefully, Ah-ah thought about how Ee-ee had failed to open one by hitting it with a stick, but figured it was worth another try. Whack, whack, whack - there was a loud crack! But it was only the stick that had broken. Ah-ah picked up the two cocoanut and carried them off. Ah-ah had no plan, but simply refused to give up. Traveling through the jungle, Ah-ah came upon [what - oh no… I’m stuck… why did I start this story? What a mistake!]
Oh, I’ve got an idea… Ah-ah heard a loud trumpeting noise and a pounding and a rumbling and quickly scampered up a tree, Ah-ah barely avoided getting trampled by a herd of elephants. And then Ah-ah looked down and noticed that where the elephants had traveled, everything was flattened. Even small trees had been crushed beneath their mighty feet. And Ah-ah had an idea. Ah-ah went to follow after the elephants and - before long - came upon them.
Stealthily, Ah-ah crept toward the elephants and - without them noticing - place a cocoanut right in the path of one large bull elephant. The elephant took one step and then another - Crunch! The cocoanut was smashed and the elephant didn’t even slow down.
Ah-ah waited until it was safe, went to the smashed nut and seeing the white heart of the cocoanut, tasted it. Delicious!
Ah-ah, went back to the monkey colony, gave them all a taste, and taught them the method for harvesting and opening cocoanuts. It has been improved since then, but all the monkeys remember the great innovator - whose name has been modified over the years. And this is the origin of the expression “aha!”
And this story is an illustration both of the process of experimentation and invention, but also of my own process of writing.
What I should have done, though, is stand up here pondering for a few hours, reading, pondering, wondering… before finally saying anything. And once I said something immediately retracting it and starting over.
The reason I would be silent for so long is that I might tend to come at the work with the feeling that it has to be right from the start - maybe even perfect from the start. Oo-oo thought that. If it doesn’t work the first time, it’s never going to work.
You know the modern kind of hoovers that don’t need filter bags? In the old days, we had to keep buying those expensive bags all the time. They reduced the suction and they were probably bad for the environment as well.
So this guy, James Dyson, got the idea that you could spin the dirty air around really fast and have all the dust and fuzz and hair and spilled rice and whatever go to the sides of the chamber while the clean air would move through. A really clever idea. Of course, it didn’t work very well - at least not at first. Dyson made 5,127 prototypes before he felt he had got it right.
The key to success was tolerating failure - tolerating a whole lot of failure. Big failures and small failures along the way.
When I was a scientist, this is the way we had to work. I would have an idea and I’d try a whole raft of different things based on the experiments that other people had done before me. Most of what I tried wouldn’t work. Often, none of them would work. I can’t say that wasn’t a bit frustrating, but usually there would be enough of a clue from those failures of what to try next. And I’d try and fail and try and fail and try and fail a little less and try and succeed a little bit and try and - if I was really on the right track - eventually succeed.
This month we’ve begun our exploration of work and play - both here and - in more depth - in the Convergence Group. And one thing that’s become completely clear is that it is completely unclear exactly what play is and what work is, and it’s unclear where one might flow into the other.
Experimentation offers a clue. Doing experiments, of course, can be hard work. As a scientist, I spent long days in the lab, often seven days a week. But experiments come with the expectation of - and the acceptance of failure. An experimental attitude is to say “let’s see what happens if we do this.”
When children play - if they are allowed to play - they are often experimental, trying one new thing after another to see what happens. When, instead, we place requirements on ourselves that it has to actually work and work the first time, there is no play, no experimentation, and often, no action - or only the most conservative kind of action. After all, if we can’t embrace failure, the only thing worth trying is the “tried and true” action - which is to say, doing what we’ve done before or copying others.
I’ve read somewhere that part of any leadership job evaluation should be to have some minimum number of big failures - really resounding clankers of failures - big daring things that were a total flop.
If we evaluate anyone based on not making mistakes, we are ensuring that nothing new ever happens.
Institutions can easily be infected with a fear of making mistakes that brings experimentation to a screeching halt. It doesn’t take much to spread the infection: One person who was fired for a failure; One manager who wants to be certain any new project will succeed before authorising it. The infection spreads and gets worse and worse. Eventually, nothing is safe to do unless it’s been done successfully in the past - and that means nothing new can ever happen.
Not surprisingly, there are many followers in every field of business and very few true innovators.
Businesses have it easy, in way, compared to institutions like ours. In business, there are objective measures of success. A business that is generating less profit than its competitors comes under pressure to change and that pressure can - break open the fear-based paralysis.
Congregations are at tremendous risk of the fear of failure disease. Once it sets in, it is very hard to cure. The objective measures are harder to find. If someone suggests numbers of people might be the right measure, there is always someone prepared to argue that congregational health is not measured by numbers - that the people who show up are the right people - that the world outside is wrong and we are right - or that we are small but perfectly formed. And let’s just keep doing what we’ve always done...
New Unity has been fortunate. We’ve had a very strong resistance to the fear of failure disease. We have long had Committee members prepared to trust and even to have faith in change. We are fortunate to have a congregation that recognises that change is essential to who we are in a very changeable world and that change does not come about without failure.
And I also know that experimentation at New Unity can sometimes be frustrating and unsettling. Every once in a while, I am asked “what ever happened to…” and the sentence is completed with some programme or initiative that was tried and flopped or fizzled. Every failure leads to learning and that learning contributes to later successes, but that is not always obvious.
And, to be fair, some fizzles happen because there was not enough support for a new initiative in the first place. Experiments do need to be made on a sensible foundation of past experience and potential interest, but there’s no avoiding uncertainty. There’s always a judgment call to be made about whether an experiment has a good enough chance of success to make it worthwhile. At times, we have launched without quite enough of that foundation work. Still, I’m deeply grateful and appreciative that we have such an open and accepting approach to experimentation.
The fear of failure disease is not only dangerous for institutions, of course. Have you ever tormented yourself over your errors rather than looking at them as a sign of adventurousness, creativity, courage, and daring? Do you fail to recognise failures as a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and even growth? If so, you’ve got a key symptom.
Do you go back to the same restaurants, same shops, same recipes, same routes, same brands over and over again rather than trying something new? You might well be infected.
I’d guess that everyone one of us has fallen ill with fear of failure disease it from time to time. Perhaps it has become a chronic infection for some of us - keeping us from reaching for the things we want in our lives.
I wish I could say that there is a new tablet to take - antifearomycin for example - but that hasn’t been invented yet. Happily, there is a treatment. It involves experimentally doing new things despite the fear that they will flop or fizzle. It might be called play - a curious, carefree, willingness to try and test and dabble without attachment to a successful outcomes.
So, this week, when you’re about to go to the same lunch place or watch the same programme, or dress in the same style, or travel along the same route, try something new. If it flops, laugh. If it’s enjoyable, laugh. If you discover something new, laugh even harder.
Aha comes with trying something new - breaking free of the assumptions and patterns of the past. It may take some trying to crack it, but the fruit will be sweet.
What will you try today
How far out on a limb are you willing to climb?
Nothing is certain but the past
Move into your future with a spirit of play
Who knows what you may find