My mother and I were talking about life – my life, her life, life in general – and the idea of success vs. failure came up. Like anyone, my mother and I have both had successes and failures. We have tried things and won, prevailed, impressed others, and achieved excellence. We have also “stepped in it,” made errors, gotten it totally wrong, and walked a long way down a mistaken path (and often had to take the time to turn around and walk back). There is a fair amount to “slap my forehead about,” and some errors that I probably would take back (or at least, want to as I sit here and type). I am disposed to look at myself, my life, my choices, my luck as “half empty” (from the glass half-full/half-empty metaphor). My mother counseled against that, and spoke of the virtue of failure; that failure has meaning. “Failure is the source of success,” a wise old proverb has it (Japanese). What follows is a point about turning lemons into lemonade and succeeding despite (because of?) so-called failure.
Making your mark in the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. It takes patience; it takes commitment; and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. So the real test is not whether you avoid failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden you and shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere. ~ Barack Obama
What does meaning mean? Simply, it refers to the psychological phenomenon of trying to make sense out of something, to give a challenging or hurtful or difficult or absurd situation an explanation that suffices – that makes one feel better. The ultimate act of finding meaning in tragedy, I believe, would have to be psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s experience of being carted off to a concentration camp in World War II. He suffered. Then he suffered some more. The whole thing was mental and physical torture. He noticed many giving up – emotionally deciding (unconsciously) that being dead would be preferred; they lost the will to live. He decided that to help them and to stay alive would be the best choice under the (absurd) circumstances. And so he did. He didn’t die of malnutrition or exposure or disease, thankfully, and he lived to tell his story. It made a wonderful book about the existential idea of standing up to life with your chin high and your chest out. He is a hero to many who have faced adversity and have chosen to live. Searching for and finding meaning can help one envision the virtue of failure.
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
Existentialism is a philosophical way of looking at the self, at life, that stakes out an individualistic, free-will-based, personal-responsibility-based approach that has been around since the 18th century. Without a predetermined purpose, with no pre-set path, one must choose. One’s purpose, one’s meaning, is up to one. It’s you. The universe doesn’t really care about you, existentialism says. We crave meaning, yet space is just vast, dark, cold, and inhospitable. We can either choose to die, or we can choose to live. If we choose life – a sanguine refutation of the absurdity of existence – there is much open to us. Persons such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Karl Jaspers, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Soren Kierkegaard were relatively agnostic or atheistic individuals (though Kierkegaard was decidedly not) who pioneered the idea that it is up to the individual to craft a life for ourselves because we have the responsibility of doing so. Frankl gets a blue ribbon for, in the 1950s, coming out with a bombshell of a book that assertively extolled the virtue of failure. He gave existentialism a world-class stress test, and it passed. Millions have found his book interesting and heartening and breath-taking. (Note: I would say that existentialism is a powerful concept; in the hands of the unwise and immature and unethical, it can be very dangerous; if God does not exist – metaphorically speaking, at least – then the world becomes a much more dangerous place. Nietzsche’s concept of a “super-man” [uber-mensch] is more akin to Adolf Hitler than to Mohandas Gandhi).
The “meaning of life” is not something we can find in a book or glean from anyone else; it doesn’t “exist” in a rational sense. Since that’s the case, we cannot really find the meaning of life unless we find it within ourselves.
The prior paragraph was perhaps a bit of a tangent. My mother wasn’t quoting Nietzsche when she was extolling the virtue of failure. One need not “go there” in order to make sense of this. Her main point was that “without failure, there is no learning.” She pointed out the phenomenon of failure being verboten in today’s society; we live (in America, at least) in a time when kids are not expected to have to accept that failure is a part of life; that humans are imperfect, make mistakes, and can grow based on those experiences. Have you heard of the “9th place trophy” phenomenon? It lampoons the idea that “every kid gets a prize.” In other words: of course the winner of some competition or contest receives an A or gets a trophy – but so does every other person, too, because the idea of children having to accept that they did not “win” (or worse, that they came in last) is too difficult, psychologically-speaking. No one likes to not get picked for P.E., but is it actually better in the long run to provide kids with a failure-free childhood? Can the young be protected from bullying, the perceived threats from vaccinations, losses in sports, receiving Bs or Cs, or not getting into their preferred college and yet still turn out mentally (and physically) healthy? Some parents create a child with little actual (or metaphorical) immunity to fight off the stress, disappointments, failures, and diseases that life will surely send their way. How do we find the virtue of failure rather than to think of losing, making a mistake, or getting rejected as a grievous insult?
Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. ~ Thomas Edison
My mother asks if we can even learn from experiences devoid (sanitized of?) failure. Perhaps not succeeding is much more likely to bring us closer to wisdom than is a long, unbroken string of “wins” and successes. This is one of the keys to envisioning the virtue of failure. She is pointing out that those who have incredible luck and very protective parents and who avoid risk are not necessarily better off because they “haven’t gotten their sea legs” yet. They haven’t paid their dues. They haven’t toughened their hide. They haven’t earned their stripes. Boy, I wish there were a medal for mixing metaphors! Though metaphors can lead down mental false paths, the phenomenon of scar tissue might be apt. What is scar tissue? It is a place on the skin where there was once trauma – with all the blood and pain and perhaps stitches or even infection – and yet it didn’t kill the individual. In fact, scar tissue is reported to be stronger than undamaged skin. It’s nature’s way of toughening up the body in case of future trauma. It turns a decidedly negative experience into a potentially positive one (i.e., greater protection against future assault). It is similar with building muscle and physical skill and endurance; the body only makes such strides to become bigger, better, stronger, more resilient when it is subjected to strain and overload. Physical progress is basically mild overload + practice + rest + recovery + repetition.
The same happens mentally. Freud popularized the idea of defense mechanisms to refer to the mind’s ability to protect itself. No challenging circumstances: no self-protectiveness. Self-protectiveness helps preserve our life and keep us safe. Whether kids are being helped or harmed by “helicopter moms” and grade inflation and ten consolation prizes is a serious question. Isn’t it a shame if parents are doing harm by protecting them? If parents were able to view a child’s situation as opportunities to “find the teachable lesson” in unfortunate outcomes – if they could see the virtue of failure – that is ideal. The nature of self-esteem is either a) one is just plain lovable and capable, or b) one accounts for self-esteem based on the number of successes had and obstacles overcome. It is the difference between a trust fund and a challenging job.
In my day, we didn’t have self-esteem, we had self-respect, and no more of it than we had earned.
It is a similar case with pain – not from failure, but from adversity or loss. I lost both my precious dog Atlas and my dad in the same 18 months. It reminds me of the time when I was 17 and I lost my grandmother (death) and my first girlfriend (break-up) in the same month or two. My parents’ divorce was concurrent and it was a rough time. These stories, of course, are paltry compared to the awesome hard-luck experiences that happen to people on a daily basis. Some people get such a raw deal that they die from car accidents, cancer, and starvation. Talk about adversity! Indeed, Nietzsche was famous for: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” In a weird, austere, disappointing way that is true. It works like that in nature; it is a huge part of the concept of natural selection, in fact. The point here is that it was very hard to lose both my dog and my dad, but I can also choose to look at those experiences positively, and say: Wow, wasn’t it fantastic to see Atlas grow from an 8-week old “little shaver” (as my old friend Lou Mone used to call the very young) to an old boy? Or the fact that I made a 45-minute video about my father in the month after his death; it was such a long and intense and complete process that in the end, I probably benefitted and had greater insight and better acceptance. My father’s life was easier to see and to appreciate once the ice of his long debilitation was destroyed by the Grim Reaper and I was working with photographs, memories, and feelings. I never found 200 photos of my dad until I was motivated to find meaning in his loss and actually looked for them.
We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
In regard to the virtue of failure, we should consider that people in mainstream American society often choose misguided goals, thus fomenting failure. Case in point: almost always, the first thing that folks think when they hear the word success is: financial gain. It is just part and parcel of American culture to view professional success through that lens. Imagine a person in a blue blazer (or pantsuit) who is asked to give a talk about success and the point of the lecture is that the person didn’t make enough money to stop working, or that they lost the business because of mounting debts – but wow how they touched lives. It just doesn’t add up. We often consciously or subconsciously equate succeeding with prevailing in business. However, think of this quote by the famous and arguably successful anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.” Consider also this high-minded thought by Marianne Williamson: “The secret of success is to realize that the crisis on our planet is much larger than just deciding what to do with your own life, and if the system under which we live – the structure of Western civilization – begins to collapse because of our selfishness and greed, then it will make no difference whether you have one million dollars when the crash comes, or just $1.00. The only work that will ultimately bring any good to any of us is the work of contributing to the healing of the world.” No one wants to lose money because of incompetence or bad luck; people don’t enjoy being fired or broken up with. If we set our sights on goals other than “making” money, then our chances of succeeding will perhaps be better. But more fundamentally, we might very well do more good than we would if we were just “chasing a buck.” Many cultures, past and present, do not place as much emphasis on wealth or materialism or possessions.
When someone asked [a friend of mine] at a cocktail party, “What do you do?” she said “I married a rich man. I do anything I want.” While the answer was true, it never felt right to her. It was years later that the perfect response came to her, and she called to tell me about it. Now when people ask what she does, she says, “About what?”
One thing I gleaned from my mother’s point was that taking proper risks opens one up to a much greater panorama of experiences such as relationships, meaning, fulfillment, overcoming, and some version of success. I bet that if she had her druthers, she would prefer I be happy, healthy, fulfilled, and that I serve – even if people ignored my book like it was a Van Gogh painting (in that he sold exactly one painting while alive, if you can imagine that!). I suppose Vincent saw the virtue of failure – well, either way, he just kept going. It was like a compulsive need to continue to perform and to keep trying to improve his art. My heart goes out to him. I know I personally wouldn’t have thought much about Anne Frank’s diary if she was going on about how much money she was planning on making as soon as she was set free.
“Live the journey, for each destination is but a doorway to another” is my favorite quote. So many get caught up in chasing goals and pursuing success (whatever that may be) that they miss out on and do not take the time to breathe into their soul what is the truly beautiful part of life – the journey. ~ Robert L. Lloyd
As a perfectionist with a bit of a self-esteem issue, I have trouble viewing a restaurant I conceived, built, operated, and capitalized in 2009 as anything but a failure. I would do well to try to recast my experience as a success on the whole, even though I had to sell for a loss in the end (and I never got all my money, but who wants to hear me complain). It would be “glass-half-full” to reframe the situation as a success that was partially plagued by a huge recession rather than a “loss.” This dovetails, lamentably, with my current problems with my writing career. That was in fact the context of the conversation with my mother: discussing my challenges selling books. She was wisely pointing out the virtue of failure. Her main point was that failure is instructive, and that it is not a straight, easy path to obtaining a big goal. What if I touched many lives with all the books I gave away over the years (over 700), or how about all the praise Values of the Wise has received by well-placed individuals? Those don’t count for nothing just because I have sold merely dozens of books as of this writing. Truth be told, I do take great solace with such boons, and with a million books published every year, it can of course be hard to get noticed.
There are no free lunches in this world. You gotta sweat and work for it if you want to succeed. ~ Morton Merchey
The story of Thomas Edison is the quintessential success story; Helen Keller and Amelia Earheart are certainly classic examples, and there are other semi-legendary stories of sticking to it, persevering, hanging in there, and overcoming. I almost shake my head when I think about how hard the rock group Rush worked in the beginning – and how far they have come. They literally went from opening for no-name bands in the 1970s to 40 million albums sold 40 years later. My mother is also a real honest-to-God rags to riches story. She was raised in a troubled home where her father died when she was young, and had no money for college. The divorce left her with few marketable skills. Today, she is a grandparent, a devoted wife, heads a remarkable philanthropic organization, and is loved by many. She is a prolific and unencumbered artist, a patron of Values of the Wise, and has received an honorary doctorate.
What risks are you taking? It’s the old cliche: Nothing risked, nothing gained. Playing it safe as a writer will lead to mediocre writing at best. If you’re not failing, you’re not shooting high enough. …What do you do after you fail? Everyone fails. That’s not the important part. What’s important is what you do next. Are you learning? Are you growing? Is your experience making your heart bigger? Or is it shrinking you down? Be aware of cynicism and bitterness, because if these emotions stick around too long, they will poison your efforts. ~ Jane Friedman
I urge you to think of your life story as a tapestry. Sure, there are loose threads and minor mistakes, but it is your tapestry. A perfectionist is a master at finding imperfections – “coulda, shoulda, woulda’s” – parts of yourself and your story you would ideally like to change and redo. If you pull on those loose ends, you might unravel the whole thing, and then whom would you be? Nay, try to find the virtue of failure by realizing that you very likely learned more and grew stronger and developed further than if you had skated, gotten off, or evaded the life lesson you were about to learn. Wisdom does not likely come from taking it easy, and “into every life some rain must fall.” That’s just how life is. It can feel like it sucks when it’s happening; one can experience stress and various costs associated with eventualities such as not succeeding, losing, finding doors closed, making mistakes, and being rejected. If you can find the strength to do it anyway – to go on despite the adversity – you will probably turn out better in the end. At least, my mom thinks so!
You don’t have to have a lot of hope, just keep working. When we’re involved in social change, the greatest thing is that we meet people who teach how to live beyond hope.
Here are some quotations that highlight the virtue of failure and wise risk-taking. You are welcome to look up quotes about failure (or other values and virtues) based on keywords, authors, or subjects using the awesome Wisdom Archive right here on Values of the Wise.
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.
The probability that we shall fail in the struggle should not deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.
He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.
In a mood of faith and hope my work goes on. A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book. I am a writer, and I take up my pen to write.
The happy (and usually successful) people I meet have a resilience that you can sense when you talk to them – people who understand that failure, loss, and rejection are part of the game (no matter what game is being played). ~ Jane Friedman
Success is on the far side of failure.
When you reach for the stars, you may not get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.
A price has to be paid for success. Almost invariably those who have reached the summits worked harder and longer, studied and planned more assiduously, practiced more self-denial, and overcame more difficulties than those of us who have not risen so far.
What most Americans have not yet figured out is that personal suffering and pain are not something to merely avoid or get rid of immediately, but that it is through suffering and pain that lessons are learned, wisdom is gained, and goals are met.
To gain your own voice you have to forget about having it heard.
A failure establishes only this, that our determination to succeed was not strong enough.
Risk is essential. There is not growth of inspiration in staying within what is safe and comfortable. Once you find out what you do best, why not try something else.
The successful man lengthens his stride when he discovers the signpost has deceived him; the failure looks for a place to sit down.
Food does not belong to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor success to the skillful; time and chance govern them all.
Nobody succeeds in a big way except by risking failure.
Each of us as creator is contributing to the fabric of the cultures we inhabit. What we do or fail to do is consequential. A hundred years from now, if your descendants did a search to see what you stood for, they would reach their conclusions from the tracks you are making. If there are none, it will say one thing. If there is evidence from your life—stories handed down, letters written, photographs taken, organizations started—these things will be the legacy for who you are.
Our aim must be to make our successive mistakes as quickly as possible. To speed up evolution.
A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. ~ Grace Hopper
There is no such thing as a self-made man. You will reach your goals only with the help of others.
No steam or gas ever drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
And, a humorous one on the virtue of failure: When confronted with failure, you will undoubtedly tell yourself something like: ‘You learn more from failure than you do from success.’ The next time you fail, you will probably say to yourself again, ‘You learn more from failure than you do from success.’ By the third time you fail, you may start to think: ‘Why am I failing so often if I am supposedly learning so much from these failures?’