the time, no matter what, at a rate of 100
percent. No exceptions, please. And, when
the inevitable happens—when things go
badly—we conceal our failures, find excuses
comforting, and do our best to “put it
behind us.” Few of us are so well adapted
that we don’t internalize it, confidently try
again, and actually embrace the failure as
something to share with others.
What’s worse, some of us are taught that
the measure of how committed we are to a
task is how much we revile ourselves upon
failing. This is, of course, not a good coping
skill, but you’ve probably fallen victim to it
at one time or another.
I am, at times, an utter failure. You may
be too. While I have what someone recently
called a “shiny CV,” it probably gives
the false impression that everything goes
my way. It doesn’t. At times I’ve failed in
personal relationships, in business and law
practice, in schooling and parenting. I am
terrible at just about any sport, gave up on
learning to play the guitar, and have spectacularly poor handwriting. I’ve made poor
investment decisions, given plenty of less-than-perfect lectures or speeches, and have
been out-lawyered by my opponents. Yep,
I’m all that. And while I may not have perfected the art of failing gracefully, I’m trying.
It’s not easy, but I invite you to consider how you fail and to honestly evaluate
whether you “fail correctly.” That is, do
you beat yourself up? Do you conceal your
failures? Do you attribute every failure to a
lack of skill or do you see some things as stochastic? Do you allow yourself to have a bad
day? And worse, do your fears or reaction to
stress or failure cripple your ultimate success
or mute your potential?
It’s been an honor and a privilege to lead
this Bar over the last year, and I’ll miss these
“little chats” that we have each month. As
we turn toward a new Bar-year I’ll be looking forward to seeing many of you—my
dear colleagues—who serve our profession
with dignity and generosity of spirit. I hope
my monthly ramblings have regaled you at
times, while giving you something new to
Until then, good night and good luck.
This is my final column as President. It’s been a
surprisingly difficult column to write. Truth be told, for me the past few
months have been filled with highs and lows, with life and work being
messy and complicated. You’ve all been there.
That said, I’ve tried to lead consistently, with a positive message and
a willingness to learn. As part of my own learning process, I’ve tried to
embrace the idea that stress, crisis, and especially failure are inevitable.
I’ve found it to be a hard lesson. That’s because I tend to strongly prefer
“no drama” and succeeding at everything, all the time, no matter what,
at a rate of 100 percent. No exceptions, please.
Turns out, that’s not realistic.
The good news is that I’ve
learned we have more control than
we realize over life’s inevitable disappointments. Namely, we get to
choose how we react and, of course,
it is how we react that is the measure
of our character. But, how we react
also has an immutable impact upon
our future and the likelihood of
How we fail matters a lot.
More on this in a moment. For
now, let me back up and say: You
should never trust or admire anyone who has no doubts about them-
selves, has no regrets, or has never failed at anything. We instinctively
know this is true, but many of us are conflicted over this when we apply
it to ourselves. What if we fail? And what if other people found out? Is
it normal to doubt yourself? Most of us know the right answers, but we
probably appreciate the reminder. On the other hand, if you’ve never
felt like a failure or never doubted yourself, you’re probably “doing it
It turns out that the secret to success is the secret to failure—that is,
success is persistence through failure. It doesn’t mean just getting up,
dusting yourself off, and trying again. It means not allowing failure to
hold you back. It means not hiding from the threat of failure.
As lawyers, many of us have regular opportunities to perfect
this skill in the courtroom and the boardroom. As humans, we
often marvel at those whose reactions to life’s unexpected twists
exceed our expectations and inspire us. We curiously wonder
how they made it through whatever crisis and whether we
would have the same intestinal fortitude.
So most of us know that failure is part of life, but when
did it get so hard? What happened to our childhood ability to
accept failure? As adults we surely can understand that, had we
not been such well-adapted failures as children, we’d never have
learned to walk or ride a bicycle. Failure never stops a 5-year-
Somewhere along the line, we adults learned to fear failure.
We convinced ourselves that we must succeed at everything, all
by Geoffrey M. Trachtenberg PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE
I invite you to consider
how you fail and to
honestly evaluate whether
you “fail correctly.”
The Secret to Failure