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Smiley shows how to bounce back from failure

The talk-show host has had much success. But he's had failures too, and in his latest book, "Fail Up," Tavis Smiley looks at how setbacks can be lead to positive outcomes. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Radio and TV talk-show host, advocate and author Tavis Smiley has had much success during his 20 years in broadcasting. But he’s had his share of failures too, and in his latest book, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success From Failure,” Smiley looks at how such setbacks can give you a stepping-stone to accomplishing your goals. Read an excerpt:

From the Introduction

By the age of 38, I had accomplished much: writing popular books, hosting national television and radio programs, being featured on the covers of magazines and newspapers, and so much more. I was even financially secure with a comfortable net worth.

Then I turned 39.

The fear that I would not make it to 40 began to overtake me. And what was worse is that I felt like I was a failure. Even though I was just one person — and a cracked vessel at that — I knew I hadn’t done enough. For all that I had tried to accomplish, the problems in my community and my country and the world seemed so intractable. Poverty. Sickness. Crime. Racism. Environmental abuse. Child neglect. Educational inequities. War.

The night I turned 40, I was alone in a hotel room in Houston and had a major panic attack. The details of that night are so traumatic, forgive me for not wanting to relive them here. But shortly thereafter, I did share my nightmare in Houston with my abiding friend, Dr. Cornel West, over dinner.

Doc and I had talked many times before about my fear of dying young, so he understood the reason for the episode. But there was one part of my story he couldn’t quite rationalize.

“How, at 40 years old, could you think that you are a failure?” he asked.

After I answered his question, Doc began to share with me his unique take on the matter of life and death:

“Tavis, the older I get, the more I think that there really is no such thing as penultimate success. I believe that every one of us essentially dies a failure.”


Doc knew I was having trouble with his reasoning, so he pressed on: “If one dies at 39, like Martin and Malcolm, or if one lives to be 139, you’re not going to get it all done. There are going to be ideas you will never develop, projects you will never complete, conversations you will never have, people you will never meet, places you will never go, relationships you will never establish, forgiveness you will never receive, and books and speeches you will never write or deliver. We all die incomplete.”

“So,” Doc added, “the central question becomes: How good is your failure?” With that, he dropped the Beckett quote on me:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Doc was right. Ultimately, life is about failing better. Every day you wake up, you get another chance to get it right, to come up from failure, to fail up.

In working with young people through our foundation, I no longer use the phrase just do your best. If what you give the world is your best, then how do you get better?

The conversation with Dr. West freed me because it gave me a different perspective on the true meaning and the real value of failure.

Beckett’s quote has become one of my favorites. I share it with young or old, Black or white, whenever I have the opportunity. Motivational speaker Les Brown says, “When life knocks you down, try to land on your back. Because if you can look up, you can get up.”

Failure is an inevitable part of the human journey. Fail up is the trampoline needed when you’re down. When youtake the time to learn your lessons, when you use those lessonsas stepping-stones to climb even higher than you werebefore, you transcend failure — you “fail up.”

As I celebrate 20 years as a broadcaster, now is the time to show my scars. I hope the 20 lessons presented in the following chapters will offer you a new way to think about your failures.

I’m a witness. You can fail up.

From “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success From Failure” by Tavis Smiley. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of SmileyBooks.