Freedom to Fail: 8 Lessons to Bring You Back!

Freedom to Fail: 8 Lessons to Bring You Back!

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A couple weeks ago I made a big mistake at work.  I’ve made mistakes before, but I think this one takes the cake. It had to do with hiring a very worthy individual.  I made a great choice, this candidate was very worthy and would be a great hire.

Unfortunately, in my excitement to bring this person on, I made a rush decision without going through the normal hiring process.

Just after I had concluded the interview, I immediately called my wife Lisa, to share the good news. My wife, being the one with the level head, said to me “what were you thinking?  Didn’t you involve your partners in this decision?”

Then it all came rushing over, what in the world did I just do? I went from thrilled to “oh no!” in about two seconds.

After my phone call with Lisa, I met with my partners still hoping they would be just as excited. After all, these are men that I respect and who support me.

Needless to say, my partners went from surprise, to shock – “How are you going to fix this?” – I knew I needed to take action so I gave my self 24 hours to see if I could magically find a GREAT solution.


I went home that night wishing that I could call a “1-800-GOD-HELP-ME” hotline to get some direction – wouldn’t it be great if just one simple phone call could fix everything!  But I also realized that this error was my responsibility to fix, and after much soul searching I knew what I had to do. I called this perfectly wonderful candidate, who I knew well and respected, and explained how sorry and embarrassed I was for making such a rush decision without any normal process or council from my valued partners.

As difficult as this phone call was, the mistake was mine.  Incredibly, she was kind, compassionate and knew that I valued her. I did not loose her respect and I kept our friendship in tact. I’m also grateful that my partners were equally kind and compassionate.

I believe failure can be healthy if you learn from it. Here are the 8 lessons I have put to good use:

  1. Take your time: In major decisions you need to keep you emotions out of the process and try to arrive at a wise & logical solution. You will almost never make a great decision in a rush.
  2. Involve your team or council: The more eyes and ears you have to shape a decision the better the outcome. My executive team was very supportive in helping me look at all sides of this outcome and they allowed me the freedom to find a better solution.
  3. Acknowledge your failures: Once you acknowledge failure you take away its power and can turn it into something positive. Acknowledgement is the first step to recovery.
  4. Take full responsibility for your actions: When you take responsibility for your actions you become fully accountable to those around you. This accountability not only gives you the ability to take control of the issue, but can also provide a teachable moment for others. It’s all about integrity.
  5. Mourn your failure:  If you don’t take it to heart you may repeat the mistake. I am dealing with it and am using this blog as part of my coping process.
  6. Learn the lesson: I never want to fail the same way twice; it shows irresponsibility & insincerity. In this instance I’ve learned to value patience & collaboration when it comes to making big decisions.
  7. Change your behavior: Once you identify how you made your mistake take steps to monitor your actions (this can actually make your brain grow!). If you don’t the odds of repeating it are great.
  8. Give it your all:  I have to admit it took me about 10 days to recover from this. But I didn’t want to become a hostage to my guilt; I knew I had to forgive myself and move on. Our time and energy are limited and we can’t afford to wallow too long in the aftermath. Click here to read about J.K. Rowling‘s battle with failure, it’s a great story!

After this embarrassing lesson, I have recommitted myself to slowing down, seeking guidance, and not being reactionary. I’ve learned that failure is a powerful teacher and I’m grateful that positive lessons have come out of a poor decision.

What failures have you learned from?




About Neil

I was born into a large Irish Catholic family in 1967 as the youngest of seven children.

My Grandfathers were best friends & coincidentally, both owners of funeral homes. John Cox (Oakland) had Joseph A. O’Connor (Los Angeles)or “Johnny” as his best man at his wedding. My parents, Joe & Jane O’Connor, met through the friendships of my grandparents.
I moved to Laguna Niguel as a child & graduated from Dana Hills High School in 1986. I served in the Navy before finally joining the family business in 1989 and establishing the 4th generation of our family-owned & operated business. In 2000, after the retirement of my father, I became the President & CEO of O’Connor Mortuary.
I met my wife, Lisa, in Maui while on a yoga retreat in 2003 and we now have a son –
Jesse Joseph O’Connor – the pride & joy of my life.
I still actively play Beach Volleyball at Victoria Beach in Laguna Beach and practice Ashtanga Yoga, I’m extremely passionate about these practices, about staying healthy and balanced in my body, mind & soul.
As CEO I am privileged to be involved with partners in our community such as Saddleback Hospital, Mission Hospital, Age Well Senior Services, San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, TIP Trauma Intervention Program, and many others. My driving passion is to provide education, care & support to my family, friends & community.

I love helping others when they need it the most.

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  • Jeff Turner


    I watched you go through this event and it was hard to watch you go through it. Like many difficulties in life, we want to alleviate other’s pain. Somehow, God has designed all circumstances that come our way to be formative, even of benefit to us. For years you have talked to our staff that they have the freedom to fail, understanding the reality of our condition that we just are not perfect. How we are formed by circumstances, relationships, successes and failures seems, like so many things in life, dependent upon our attitude and what we do with it.

    I know you were saying some pretty harsh things to yourself as you navigated the fallout but I also saw in you the desire to be reflective and examine the “why” of your actions. It was not out of a desire to further self accuse, rather to better understand motivations, fears, triggers and any other detail that you could learn from. Giving yourself some grace, cutting yourself slack, letting it be OK for YOU to fail was a lesson that spoke to all of us.

    Thanks for being transparent about this condition that we all hold in common. Thanks for being willing to fail and not hide it, but share it and help us all to learn. Improvement is the by product of good and bad experiences reflected upon with a balanced self awareness.

    C. S. Lewis said “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

    I appreciate all you have taught me and I’m glad we’re in this together.

    Now, go screw up something else.


    • Hi Jeff –

      Thanks for your reply! I love the quote from C.S. Lewis. I like to use the quote no pain, no gain. Believe me I find ways to create pain in my life. I will find ways to celebrate my failures, you are welcome to join me misery loves company.


  • Kim Stacey

    Brilliant! My dear friend, you are such an inspiration. “Owning” our mistakes is a powerful thing, which always leads us to deeper insights into the workings of our mind. And, as Jeff noted, C.S. Lewis was right…”my God, do you learn.” I doubt you’ll ever make that same mistake again.

    Different ones, yes. Whatever they may be, I’d add this to the list: Be compassionate with yourself. You’re only human!

    • Hi Kim –

      Thank you for your words of wisdom. You are 110% right, I am not going to make that mistake twice. I agree to not beat my self up over the recovery of learning.


  • Cheryl Lanterna

    Hi Neil,
    Isn’t it amazing that somehow “there are no accidents”? Reading this today and having it relate to my work life as well as my personal life is just what I needed! The subject is so relevant to all of us and being reminded that we all experience failures and that even people we respect (like you), have the same ups and downs gives all of us permission to be gentler with our selves and to continue to learn and grow. Thanks for all of the information and the links to more useful and helpful information! Am sending it out too!

    • Hi Cheryl –

      Thank you for your reply. I am glad you could relate to me, there are times in my life when I feel like I am alone in this journey. I was afraid to even send this out to you and the rest of our community, then I just said forget my fear and live bold. We can never go back in time, we can only move forward from our learning lesson. Thank you for your support and love! XO


  • Mark

    Neil…..Thank you for being transparent and honest. How refreshing to work for a boss who admits that he is not perfect and that he may not be right every single time! Please remember this blog the next time you call me to room 4..


    • Hi Mark –

      Thank you for your reply!
      I can only live with my self, so what ever I do, good or bad stays with me. Recovery is the best way to move beyond our limitations.


  • A great word Neil…there are so many lessons learned in our failures, yet very few from our successes.

    Thanks for a great post and needed encouragement!

    • Hi Joey –

      Thanks for your support!
      I have learned more about my self in painful situations than I have the joys of life.


  • ardy martin

    Hi Neal, Wow, your message is so empowering. I spent 20 years in the insurance business. When I retired, I did not leave with one single friend. Two years later I joined O’Connor’s, part time. I must tell you that I have never felt more affection and love, just from being a part of such an awesome group of people. The fact that you encourage all of us to be ourselves, but also to ‘think outside the box’ is extraordinary. I thank God everyday for the opportunity I have been given to be part of such a great place of SERVICE. With love and appreciation, Ardy

    • Hi Ardy –

      Thank you for your reply! You are such a joy to be with, it is always great to be in your company.
      You make our company great with the rest of the team.


  • Elsa


    • Hi Elsa –

      Thank you for your reply!
      The message of being honest, transparent and human is powerful.
      This has been a life lesson for me, I cannot stand my self when I fail. I feel less than human or adequate.
      I appreciate your understanding of this message.


  • Lori Bristol


    It takes a big man to admit such a mistake.
    I too can act based on emotion, big surprise, and regret my decision after the fact.
    I admire you for seeking and listening to Lisa’s advice.
    Failures are a necessary part of life or how else would we learn?
    Thank you for the advice on preventing and/or recovering from failure.

    Great post!

    • Hi Lori –

      Thank you for your reply!
      I have recently learned that I have an overriding reactionary personality. WOW, News flash to everyone.
      So I am doing my best to balance my emotions to a more logical approach in my life.


  • Christopher Iverson


    Wow! A CEO who is brave enough and bold enough to write this blog. You make us all proud. Remember, as the great Tom Hopkins teaches, “Success is the continuous journey to the achievement of pre-determined, worthwhile goals.” Sometimes failure gets in the way, but it is only the opportunity to change course in our direction in order to perfect our performances. I know from too much experience. Thank you. Peace Always! Chris

    • Hi Chris –

      Thanks for your reply!

      I love the quote that you have shared with me over time by Tom Hopkins. Life is full of course adjustments.




    You bring a certain grace (yes,grace, or, you may call it savoir-faire) to this work environment. I am grateful for your intellectual, “reaching for the better” management style. (yes, I am talking about you). I have had experience with all management styles, and I compliment you for looking for the “better” in people and being invested in their well-being as productive, caring and responsible individuals. Yes, we all fail. Yes boss, you also fail. You have seen me, and I have seen you. But you, in your position here, offer us a unique opportunity to witness you having the guts to admit it, and in public on a website no less.

    This speaks to how one values others, trusts others, and, is vulnerable to others.

    I could not, would not, work here if there was a stupid, short-sighted “management by fear” mentality, or one based on the idea that “you are only as good as the last agreement you wrote”. You could say that I am too old to take it, or, “I’ve been there, done that” and am finished with it.

    This means that you accept people as they are, with their shortcomings. Of necessity, in return, we are expected to invest ourselves in our work environment 100%, and this is a fair deal. You are loyal and you expect us to be loyal.

    You elaborated on a great life lesson, one that turns boys into men and girls into women, kids who become adults with a qualification based on more than just their age. We grow, or I should say, are offered the opportunity to learn to grow, through our life experiences and those of others. This can be through accomplishment or failure. This gives us depth as people and, if we wish, to be a resource to others.

    I have never met anyone with any substance or “life sophistication” that hasn’t had to deal with failure. I have never found “depth” in a person who denies responsibility, or views humility as a weakness.

    Thank you for your words of encouragement… Now, go out and buy us a “special” lunch.

    • Hi Greg –

      Thank you for your reply!
      First of all lunch is on me anytime you would like it, special or not?
      I appreciate your kind words and wisdom, we all have something to offer each other.
      You have taught me more in our relationship than I could ever offer to teach you.
      I agree with you that life gives us learning lessons as long as we are willing to learn from them.


  • Anne Collins

    We are always harder on ourselves over judgement errors than any other kind. Anyone can get caught up in the moment, but it takes courage to say “I was wrong this time”. Then there’s the big time courage to say it to the entire larger community. Bless you as you get past self flagellation to new successes and completion of those big dreams we know you have. XO Anne

    • Hi Anne –

      Thanks so much for your reply and your kind words.
      You have helped shape me over the years, even in the discussions that we agreed to disagree with each other.
      You have always been a women of high values and ethics, I admire you for your beliefs.
      I value our friendship and the time we have spent together.


  • Neil,
    You model the behavior of great leaders who fail. They view every failure as an opportunity to learn something important.

    • Hi John –

      I value you and your wisdom. You have become a dear friend and close mentor to me. Your leadership within our profession and with Selected Independent Funeral Homes has made our world a better place to live in.
      Thank you for being my friend.


  • Sometimes it is hard to own up to your mistake or failure, but still important to do. I think you can’t really learn from your mistakes if you don’t take steps to correct them or make amends. Being an adult is not always an easy job!

    • Hi Annette –

      Thank you so much for your reply! Your last line is classic, “Being an adult is not always an easy job”. I was saying the something to someone the other day. What ever happened to the days of very little worries? I miss them sometimes. I am trying to make my life a simple as possible in a very complicated world. I always appreciate your wisdom and support. Thank you for taking the time in sharing your perceptive.


      • I am reminded often from a poster I have seen online: “Don’t grow up, it’s a trap!”

        or: “I don’t know why I was in such a hurry to grow up!”

        • Yes, a trap it is!

          I am not in any hurry to grow up, my wife Lisa will tell you I am about 13 years old most days.

  • Karilyn Leslie

    I am so glad to be here with you and share in your successes and failures!! Thank you for being open and honest with all of us. You are truly a leader and an inspiration to the men, and women around you. The legacy of a life well lived with be your gift to all who you have touched on this blue ball.

    Cheers to you my friend!!


    • Hi Kari –

      Thank you for your reply! It is actually very easy to open and honest when we are surrounded by people who are open and honest, like you! So thank you for helping me make my course adjustments when I get off course .

      Cheers to you my friend!


  • Ms. Fran Cantor

    Neil Hi,

    From all the responses it seems You have “Sensitivity’ as a “BOSS” which is “Exceptional.’
    To know that your employee can sense Your ability to show Failures is part of Learning
    life experiences. If only we gain the wisdom and the forgiveness for our Failure to accept it.
    With ‘EUPHORIA.’
    I had five different “BOSSES’ working at the Airport, only one was like you “Exceptional” Why
    the personal lady went to him and said I found the right Receptionist, I had stayed 14yrs. I had
    lost my Husband and he took the time to help me personally because I was going thru deep
    Depression and he was so understanding and we talk after work and read some verse from the
    “BIBLE” so sympathetic and it help me. I have be bless with people being there for me.
    Just like you have been their for your “Warmhearted” Employees, May God continue to give
    you Grace for what you do.

    Blessing to you,

    Frannie +

    • Hi Frannie –

      Thank you so much for your reply and support! I am glad to hear that you have had a boss who was willing to support you in your time of need. Life is still a great gift, and we all have the choice to be a giver or a taker. I feel blessed to have you as a friend who is willing to share your life with. May God continue to bless you and your family.


  • Carrie Bayer

    Neil, my idea of you as Perfect has been shattered! I kid- you are a great example of how to right mistakes & having it broken down into these 8 steps makes dealing w/ failures easier. You have seen me make major mistakes & you have led me in the right direction to fix them. In some cases, you have had to do my damage control & I will be forever grateful to you for that. Your compassion toward me when I have been devastated has helped me learn the lesson better & know how to prevent future blunders. Thank you, thank you, thank you! XOXO Carrie

  • Hi Carrie

    Thank you so much for your reply!
    I am glad I could shatter that false image of me. Ok, now that truth is known, I can make a poor choice just like everyone else. You have helped me understand how to recover from my mistakes, so thank you for teaching me as well. Lets continue to learn to celebrate our failures and keep moving forward!

    Thank you! XOXO


  • Shayna Mallik

    Hi Neil,
    Thank you so much for sharing this story with us. This empowers all of us to know we can admit our mistakes and learn from each one. Everyone learns more from there mistakes then the successes. By making mistakes and living up to them you grow as an individuals but also as a company and a team. Thank you for sharing this blog, it is inspirational 🙂


    • Hi Shayna –

      Thanks for your reply!
      Yes, we can learn from our mistakes and we can learn from others.
      That is why we can celebrate our failures, as long as we are willing to share and learn.
      Life is to short not to take chances, we just need to be able make sure we are self aware.


  • amy

    What an Inspiration you are to all of us. It is an honor to work for such an honest and humble man. Thank you for your honesty and allowing us to fail, as long as we learn from it. It is a pleasure be in your presence.


    • Hi Amy –

      Thank you for your reply!
      When you surround your self with honest people like you, it is easy to be honest.
      I really enjoy being in your company, the pleasure is all mine.


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  • Patricia Kolstad

    My dear friend:

    I remember a time many years ago when the word failure was a sign I thought I wore around my neck. Not one that was invisible, but one that all could see. In my heart, there would never be redemption. And it was because I had no faith in myself or my abilities to rise above adversity and failure.

    For the past 19 years I have been on a journey of redemption. Of admitting past failures, making corrections, moving forward, failing, making corrections, moving forward, failing . . . well, you get the picture.

    I fortunately have had many mentors in my life since then. You, and the chiefs have been that for me. We have watched each other fail, had the tough discussions, took a different tack, and moved forward. It’s been such an
    incredible journey for me, as I know it has for you. Our long talks and given me encouragement, power and an attitude that I can overcome and accomplish anything.

    Thank you, my friend, for your candor, for you open heart, for your ethical sense of business, for you willingness to lift us up from the bottom, and not push us down from the top!

    I’m so very grateful to you!


  • Hi Pat –

    Thanks for your reply! I love the fact that you are a life long learner, you are always willing to improve. It is amazing when we can let our egos go and let life take us on this wonderful journey of learning, failing and relearning. You have been one of my closest mentors in my life. I am thankful for our friendship.


  • Neil! What a pleasure it is to work for someone with this perspective! I feel so blessed by this perspective because of the guilt-relieving power your words have. I remember so many of my failures, it seems that if one of them comes to mind all the others come crashing in on me, but I’m now curious to see how I can turn the guilt and pain I feel with those memories into something more focused & positive.
    Thanks for being so honest, open & real with us. I really enjoyed your post!

    • Hi Molly –

      Thank you for your reply! Life is to short to get stuck with guilt and pain. We all do a great job of beating our selves up when we make a mistake. Life’s journey is full of learning lessons, if we stay open minded for the lessons we can evolve as we go. If we stay stuck in this shame, guilt and pain we will never know our full selves. If we can forgive our selves, we can forgive others.

      Namaste Molly!

  • Neil,
    How boring would life be if everything we did, thought and attempted was perfect in every way. As a dad, I marvel at all the parents trying to protect their children from failure and or disappointment. I understand the natural instinct to protect, it is innate but when we go overboard it becomes a disservice to them. Allowing one the freedom to fail and learn is one of the most powerful things we can do to guide people in this life. Do we really need a trophy for everybody that participated so all feel good? Why? What happens when life throws us that curveball that cannot be hit and we fail? Better to learn the lessons then have false pretense that nothing will ever go wrong. Thanks for sharing your personal story of failure, we all have them. The story is never about the failure anyway, it is about the recovery and the lessons learned while doing so. Thanks for being a great partner, brother n law and friend. We shall fail again and again, but we will always get back up together.
    “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” Orlando Battista


    • Hi Chuck –

      Thanks for your response! I agree we all need to learn how to fail, it is the mother of all teachers.
      Life is to short not to fail, could you even image if we never took a chance or never felt like we could be bold.
      Getting up off the floor is the lesson we all need to be willing to learn.

      I am grateful to have you as a friend, brother in law & partner!