18 March, 2010

The Anatomy of Failure

It is only possible to succeed at second-rate pursuits-like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister, winning a war, seducing beautiful women, flying through the stratosphere or landing on the moon. First-rate pursuits-involving, as they must, trying to understand what life is about and trying to convey that understanding-inevitably result in a sense of failure. A Napoleon, a Churchill, a Roosevelt can feel themselves to be successful, but never a Socrates, a Pascal, a Blake. Understanding is for ever unattainable. Therein lies the inevitability of failure in embarking upon its quest, which is none the less the only one worthy of serious attention. -Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-90), British broadcaster

"You have failed!" These are three words we struggle so hard to avoid having to listen. And listen we must. For more people fail than succeed. More often we fail than we succeed. Failure is more natural, more logical than success. And yet rarely do we seem to prepare for its acceptance. Indeed, we do everything possible to pretend that we have not failed, that we are not worried about failure. This, even while fear of failure remains the single biggest cause of our striving.

More than the tangible damage of failure, it is the perception of damage, the social taboo attached to failure that hurts us badly. The universe associates colossal shame with failure.

Somewhere in the process of our evolution we have come to inalienably associate happiness with success and linked failure with unhappiness. The inevitable consequence is that we have filled our lives with unhappiness. The sum total of unhappiness must be far greater than that of happiness; we have made earth an unhappy planet.

We shy away from accepting failure as a fact of life even though our life must end on the grandest of all our failures: Death. As the US critic, Edward Dahlgerg remarked: Everything ultimately fails, for we die, and that is either the penultimate failure or our most enigmatical achievement. Indeed our entire life is underlined with failure as we strive to overcome our imperfection. The world itself is pregnant with failure, is the perfect manifestation of imperfection, of the consciousness of failure, said Henry Miller.

Why do we then continue to hate failure, hypocritically deny this ever so common fait accompli? It has to do with the over importance we have come to place on success. The disproportionate celebration of success, the hero worshipping of the successful and the utter suffering flowing from humiliation that society attaches to failure.. have all rendered us helpless victims of fear. We live in perpetual fear of failure. The subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to our failures.


To understand the heights to which this terrible fear of failure has been pushed in our psyche we merely need to look at the huge school bags of our children in the primary schools -and even at the nurseries. In our mindless pursuit of success, we have robbed their smiling faces of all glow of happiness. Percentage, rank, marks.. the icons of success have become the weapons of infanticide. In the process we produce monsters of efficiency, untiring robots -dead long before they begin to live. We annihilate their creativity. And all this for the sake of future happiness! The children's exam-time turns the ordinary household into mortuaries. And there are so many of them. The tenth and twelfth graders virtually sacrifice every joy of their adolescence for the so-called success. We barter today's certain happiness for tomorrow's uncertain success.

Our dread of failure is such that we don't even talk about it. The word itself is taboo. Although we need to learn how to manage failure more desperately than how to manage success, there is not one celebrated theory of failure. The Internet does host some sites [such as fail.org, failure.com, despair.com etc.] dedicated to the understanding of certain types of failures, the attempt is far too facile.

In its vulgar quest for success mankind is often driven to make fundamental compromises. The genesis of much of today's crime may be traced to this urge to appear successful. And to evade the shame of one failure we are often pushed to commit a bigger sin.


Coping with failure begins with the acceptance of failure as a fact of life and disassociating humiliation and shame from it. The next step is to distinguish and manage the real damage caused by failure from its perceived damage. Finally we need to insulate ourselves against consequential unhappiness flowing from failure.

If we succeed in insuring ourselves against the tangible damage of failure then in real terms all else should matter much less. But the reality stretches way beyond and merges with perception. When we fail we feel as if the world has converged its attention upon us. Our misplaced ego and lack of modesty heightens this sense of humiliation. In the words of Katherine Mansfield, the British author, when we can begin to take our failures nonseriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them. It is of immense importance to learn to laugh at ourselves.

Muggeridge reminds us that much of what we do is too mundane, anyway. To attach any great shame to our failure in accomplishing these pursuits is unjustified.

Failure as a declared result -output- ought to be differentiated from effort -input- as all that we can make. And when we are failed after doing our best under the circumstances, we must go on, if necessary pitying the system. R L Stevenson counsels us: Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.

A degree of detachment may sometimes actually help us to convert our failure into success. It is good to remember that most of our history is a record of damning failures. Failure of revolutions, movements, thought and ideology; failure of kings and emperors, scientists and explorers; failure of projects, missions, adventures; failure of will and intent, of promise and belief. And that success is but failure averted. There, therefore, must not be so much shame in failure, after all.

Indeed, history bears testimony to the transient nature of failure. Many a great painter, musician, inventor has perished in penury, condemned and failed. But posterity often woke up to acknowledge their place in the hall of fame. Failure of a time should not be allowed to defeat our confidence in our ability to succeed. We fail more when we fail in our eyes. Hence we must guard against precluding our judgement about our true worth.


It is significant to recognize, too, that we are failed more often than we really do. That is, we are often declared a failure by a system that is imperfect, by examiners who are not qualified to judge us, who do not possess sufficiently reliable tools to test us. It is more the failure of the examiner and of the examination process than of the examinee. But it suits an imbecile social setup to blame the helpless examinee more than the mighty examiner.

Does the teacher at school judge the pupil with complete awareness of the conditions at his home? Does the boss at office evaluate the performance of his employee in the background of his milieu? And does the judge in the court consider all the circumstances that led the accused to the alleged crime? Does even the income taxman consider one's compelling expenses? That it is not possible for these gentlemen to conduct such all-encompassing inquiries is their failure.

Our studying children are often condemned in unfair tests. Does the question paper test the student's understanding of the subject or his memory? Is the question worded correctly? Has the child understood the question or does he not know the answer? Indeed, has the teacher understood his answer? Has he seen it from his student's point of view? Truly, failure is a very poor yardstick of performance!

Despite starting from the unfairness of unequal birth, leading a whole life in uncongenial circumstances, we allow ourselves to be judged, to be compared. If success and failure per se are poor barometers of one's performance, comparing one with another in parts is even crueler. But most "results" are merely the statements of some comparison. Perfectly unequal and unfair comparisons.

Seen strictly from the point of view of input and the totality of the situation, many of our heroes turn out to be no better performers than their condemned counterparts. It is just their setting that lends credence to their effort. They are being judged differently. Similarly many of those that failed have probably done their best. They may even have contributed more of themselves than those who succeeded did. The sacrifices made by those that failed may have surpassed those that are celebrated. We are all failures-at least, all the best of us are, said the British playwright, J. M. Barrie.

Unfortunately both success and failure are often contagious: success breeds more success and failure leads to bigger failures. In other words the few happy souls are billed to be happier and those multitudes of unhappy lot are doomed to remain sorrower. For the sake of their life those that "failed" need to understand and redefine failure. And be less unhappy.

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