Success and failure are slippery and complex concepts. Some types of failure, the simple antonym to success, can be devastating. A car fails and people die. A pregnancy fails with the loss of a precious life. Mental health fails leading to breakdown and suffering. No one sane wants to court this type of failure. As James Altrucher comments:
There’s this “cult of failure” that has popped up recently. That you need to fail to succeed.
This is not true. Failure really sucks. You don’t want to fail.
There’s also failure that arises from negligence. When we fail to live in the moment, when we don’t attend to something crucial, terrible things can happen. Anything from an oil spill wiping out ecosystems to emotional damage to a loved one who knows we’re not there for her.
There’s nothing attractive about this type of faiure. However much we manage to learn from it on reflection, it would always have been better to get the learning in another way.
Moreover, when we’re dealing with the type of failure that comes from our own negligence, it’s not appropriate to relabel it as ‘success’ or ‘learning’ to duck the responsibility. There are times when the things that go wrong are shouting out for us to pay attention and do some deep reflecting.
And yet, when Samuel Beckett advises:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
I’m completely in agreement, which leads me to thin that what we mean by failure isn’t a monolithic thing. And it’s this other sort of failure, the type that involves taking risks, that we can redefine as success. In this sense, you don’t need to succeed, that is you don’t need to realise every goal in exactly the way you’d envisaged it, be a success.
1. Inversion isn’t always failure
The common question, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ is a useful shorthand for the Stoic notion of inversion. Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, practiced premeditatio malorum, or ‘premeditation of evils.’
The idea was to consider the worst outcomes of an action. What if this results in bankruptcy or losing my home? What it this leads to everyone disliking me?
The point of the exercise was to anticipate possibilities in order to plan better and think about how to manage worse case scenarios. And it was also a way to overcome fears. As Paulo Coelho says:
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
But inversion isn’t always about failing. Not only does this exercise help us to think about what might happen and prepare as far as possible, but it also provides an alternative way of thinking in general.
As James Clear points out:
Inversion is often at the core of great art. At any given time there is a status quo in society and the artists and innovators who stand out are often the ones who overturn the standard in a compelling way.
Great art breaks the previous rules. It is an inversion of what came before. In a way, the secret to unconventional thinking is just inverting the status quo.
And it’s not only art. A mathematician might invert a difficult problem in order to reach a solution.
Too often the definition of ‘success’ is being popular, going with the status quo, pursuing goals that everyone else values and expects you to aim for.
Inversion challenges this. What you end up with might not be ‘success’ in the eyes of the crowd, but it might very well be innovative, ground-breaking and exactly where you want to be.
2. Taking a chance is an antidote to perfectionism
Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis. On the one hand perfectionism demands of you that you can do everything: achieve ten goals before breakfast, produce a manuscript with not one comma out of place … On the other hand, it’s demands are so preposterous that you will stop in your tracks and procrastinate rather than risk failure.
Of course aiming high is good. Of course you should improve your craft. As an editor I’m a fan of putting in the work, making things excellent, stretching our boundaries as writers. But there is also a time to let go. And there are times when you need to take a chance. As Brené Brown puts it:
Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?
3. Courage is better than fear
Courage is not the opposite of fear. Courageous people feel fear, but act in spite of it. This isn’t easy. We have a long history of useful fear, but as Martha Beck notes in Steering by Starlight, the usefulness has sometimes become redundant:
The entire purpose of your reptilian brain is to continuously broadcast survival fears — alarm reactions that keep animals alive in the wild. These fears fall into two categories: lack and attack. On the one hand, our reptilian brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: We don’t have enough love, time, money, everything. On the other hand, something terrible is about to happen. A predator — human or animal — is poised to snatch us! That makes sense if we’re hiding in a cave somewhere, but when we’re home in bed, our imaginations fixate on catastrophes that are so vague and hard to ward off they fill us with anxiety that has no clear action or implication.
When we get the concetp for a new project or have an exciting idea for the next book we want to write, the lizard brain (perhaps with help from internal voices of discouragement that we’ve carried with us for years) will kick in. It will start whispering that you don’t stand a chance, that you are bound to fail and then what will you look like? And very quickly the idea is dead.
You need the ability to take courage in the face of all possibilities and try new ideas. As Elizabeth Gilbert says:
Your fear is the most boring thing about you. Fear only ever tells you one thing: STOP. Whereas creativity, courage and inspiration only ever want you to GO. Go = motion = change = fascination = possibility = growth = LIFE
4. Risks encourage persistence and learning
Taking a risk on your ideas doesn’t only cultivate courage. It also makes you more persistent and more able to learn. Talking about all the lightbulbs that didn’t work, Thomas Edison claimed:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
The inventor of Spanx hosiery, Sara Blakely grewup in a famiy wehre every week her dad would ask his children, ‘What did you fail at this week?’
This wasn’t the cult of failure, but the kind of failure Samuel Beckett was recommending. It was about encouraging risks, persistence and learning.
5. Being wrong is good for you
The majority of scientists are wrong most of the time. Some of the ‘wrong’ outcomes lead to intriguing and worthwhile spin-offs. Some lead to persistence and learning.
Agustin Fuentes, Psychology Today:
Hope, dreams, and an active imagination, despite serious challenges, is part of why our species has done so well. Failing at something acts to demonstrate limitations, to force us to rethink or reevaluate how we do things, and to learn how to do them better. It adds a road block, ups the ante, and makes us use our brain, cooperate and get creative with the world. This is what humans do best. Unfortunately, all too often in our society trying and failing is seen as a flaw, as a failure of character, and this is a problem.
Getting something wrong does not make you ‘wrong’ as a person.
6. ‘Failure’ shows you where you shouldn’t be …
Sometimes we try things that are not a good fit. In The Power of Moments, Dan and Chip Heath tell the story of a woman who spent a great deal of time, money and effort opening a bakery. She was a great pastry chef and the bakery was her dream. Until she had one. Then she discovered that she hated dealing with clients, working all hours, and so much else about having her own bakery. Rather than stay miserable, she closed it down and went back to working in a team that suited her skills and the life she wanted to live.
She tried and it didn’t work. But there’s no need to see this as failure. She learnt a great deal about herself.
7. ‘Failure’ can open new doors
If you never take chances you are much less likely to bump into the unexpected. Once you begin to take risks, whether with your quests in life or with your writing, you will find that even if the outcome isn’t what you expected, it is likely to be interesting.
Writing in Psychology Today, Ian H Robertson says that when things fail:
Our attention zooms out from its close-in focus on future reward to a wide-angle perspective on a suddenly unpredictable and reward-poor world.
… this wide focus opens our minds to new thoughts, perceptions and possibilities … it can make us more creative, provided we manage not to become overwhelmed by the stress.
… failure can help us to encounter new possibilities because it forces us to abandon the blinkered focus on reward that repeated success causes.
8. Growth is vital to life
In other words, while success is comforting, we can also stagnate in it. Not getting easy success, on the other hand, makes you stretch and move outside this comfort zone. Failure in this sense changeperspective and gives you a renewed apprecation of how far you will push yourself.
If you don’t have room to fail, you don’t have room to grow.
9. Process is more important than outcomes
Most things I try to do don’t work out as I planned. But who am I to predict the outcomes of my preparation. My only job is to prepare.
Once we have a quest, the creativity is all in the process. And this process changes us, which is why it is so much more valuable than outcomes.
In the final analysis, our deepest and most vital achievements will be what we learnt along the way and the quality of person we strive to be.
10. Success is a perspective
As I noted at the outset of this article, there are types of failure that are painful and hurtful. We may not be able to avoid those over the course to a lifetime, but there’s no sense in courting them either.
But, within the definitions of success and failure that we’re playing with here, we can view most ‘failures’ as successes. This isn’t mere semantics. Language is powerful and when we view attitudes like not giving in to fear, having the courage to try new ideas and valuing process as ‘success’ then we make a huge internal shift. As James Altrucher notes, in this sense you should:
Take the word “fail” out of your vocabulary.
Everything we do in life is a success. We breathe, we love, we practice kindness, we deal with other human beings. We improve. We have experiences. This is magnificent and abundant success. Just even being able to try new things is something to celebrate every day. To smile at another person. To play.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.