A Sermon That Innocently Opened My Eyes to the Grace of Failure
By Jay Lieberman
I remember it now like it was just a minute ago. But, I have struggled trying to understand it for many years – 20 years ago in fact when I let fear get the best of me. When it allowed me to throw away everything I worked so hard for.
First let me take you back 4 months when this over-whelming realization began.
At Rosh Hashanah services late last year, our Rabbi projected out a powerful sermon.
I was hanging on every sentence. It was as if he created it just for me. What I didn’t expect was the flood of emotions that came rushing forward, along with some very misty eyes.
Something woke up inside me.
His core message was not about G-d, what he/she is or isn’t doing for me. It was not about how an old mythical Rabbi from 1,000 years ago said this thing or that thing, which I should model my entire life after.
No, it was not about that at all. It was something based on every day existence as a human being. It was a deeper gift I was given. I felt the other 500 people in the sanctuary disappear around me.
His Sermon was entitled, “The Courage To Be Imperfect.”
It’s almost impossible to paraphrase that moving 20 minutes, but the overall message was this – the expectation of Perfection separates and distances folks from one another. Those that believe it can be achieved and others that realize perfection is unattainable.
The opposing Imperfection is critical. It is where we find the really important stuff, like courage, commitment and character. These things tend to arrive just after failure of perfection; after situations of great turmoil, upheaval, stress, and anxiety.
“Errors aren’t mistakes. What is interesting, what is fascinating is what comes right after a mistake,” the Rabbi said.
Some people are so consumed with being perfect, keeping up with those they believe are perfect, that they never truly branch out and try something new. They never stretch beyond it.
They become frozen by the mere thought that someone may see their faults. Or more importantly, they may see within themselves that they are not as perfect as they once perceived themselves to be.
You see, failure provides many gifts, such as innovation, new ideas, looking at things from a completely different lens. These go out the window if failure and imperfection are not embraced.
I know that it takes a lot of strength to try something that demands an incredible resistance to doubt, while at the same time a commitment to faith.
So, what does this all have to do with my career path?
Well, back in 1995 I was getting ready to graduate from law school. I had spent half of those grueling 3 years studying for a specialty in criminal law, working towards a job at the District Attorney’s office in L.A.
I had already clerked for a Judge and at the City Attorney’s office, so I was headed down an exciting path. I was ecstatic about the direction I was going. Also, I knew the D.A. personally. He coached his son’s and my little league baseball team back when we were kids. Things felt good.
I had the first in a series of interviews with the DA’s office and left very excited about my future there.
Then, just days after the interview, something unexpected happened. A thick fog began to engulf me. I became terrified. I had no idea at the time what the hell was going on. There was some invisible force causing me to doubt everything I wanted and worked for.
Flashes of fear raced through my mind day and night. Scared to be in court. Fearful of not performing well in front of so many people. Scared my failures would put more criminals back on the street. Fearful that I may forget something, that I would get disbarred.
I was afraid I would make a mistake. And that mistake would be the end of all things.
Crazy shit whirled around my brain. I worked so hard and loved the prospects for my future. I had been mapping it out for years and it was finally within my grasp.
And overnight it dominated my most dreaded thoughts.
I became silently depressed.
The only way out of the pain was to get rid of the cause. So, I cancelled the second interview and immediately forged a new career path.
For no other reason, I realize now, except for my fear of being imperfect.
Don’t get me wrong, I am nothing but grateful for the career, experiences and adventures I have had so far in my life. I couldn’t imagine being any happier than I am today, serving my clients, my family and my community as I have the honor of doing every day.
But, I never realized that fear of failing and imperfection was the reason for my abrupt upheaval so many years ago. It had been nagging at me for years. I could never put my finger on it until now. Until those flowing words from my Rabbi hit my ears.
I realize now that I can never be perfect, that I may make 100X more blunders than successes. I realize now that perfection is an impossibility.
Understanding this has allowed me to begin to embrace imperfection. It has allowed me to not give a shit what anyone else thinks. And it now allows me to pursue things in my life, which exposes me to risk of failure, without the threat of fear halting my path forward.
I am so fortunate that I showed up to temple that day. That sermon liberated my mind and forged new roads ahead.