NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Failure” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
In our success-driven society, there seems to be no end of helpful adages for dealing with failure. But “Failure is not an option” is small comfort to those who believe they have already failed, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” seldom encourages the already discouraged, and “we learn more from failure than from success” is scant consolation when we do not see a silver lining in the cloud of our defeats.
The problem with these guidelines is that the underlying concept of “failure” is flawed. Most of us hope that we will achieve what we strive for and feel that when we do not, we have failed. Striving for what we want is a natural part of our makeup, but attachment to the outcome of those strivings can become a prison.
In my own life, as a boy, taking failure off the table made me valedictorian of my high school at the expense of an unbalanced self. During my adult life, never giving up kept me in doomed relationships and careers. When things fell apart, the “lessons” of failure did not avert despair. Only by abandoning these guidelines have I been able to break unsatisfying patterns and find freedom.
For a young client whose motto was “Number 2 is the first loser,” “success” meant being the best at anything he tried. He was good at what he did. But he was also the most “successful” drug abuser I’ve encountered. The pressure of being Number 1 was constant and he lived in a nightmare of fear that someone, somewhere, was better than he was. Losing his fear of failing to meet an impossible standard of success was his first step toward recovery from addiction.
When we lose attachment to outcome, everything that happens just is. If things don’t work out as we hope they will, there is no failure; our lives have simply taken a different turn. Finding ourselves on an unexpected path, we can stop and look around and ask what we can do from here. Perhaps we do reevaluate, learn from our mistakes, and try, try again. Or maybe we find that one door closes, another opens, and we go through that second door instead.
At times I wonder even about inspirational tales of success. Thomas Edison, when asked about his endless attempts to find a viable filament for an incandescent light bulb, remarked, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We have all benefited from Edison’s persistence. But what might he have discovered had he given up his quest for the incandescent light bulb and looked for another way to turn electricity into illumination?
Understanding failure as an opportunity came to me most clearly on the day of my near-death experience. That afternoon, I was cranky and irritable with the nurses and my girlfriend at the inconvenience of being in the hospital, away from all the things I felt were of vital importance to my eventual success as a professor and novelist. A couple of hours later, however, I was fighting not to succeed, but to stay alive. From that event forward, I was on a different path. Would my life have been more “successful” if I had written that novel and completed that PhD? Or has the range of experiences since then enriched it and the lives of others in ways that could not otherwise have occurred?
Sometimes I use Flatland, a short novel written by Edwin Abbot at the end of the 19thcentury, to help clients envision alternate selves who, rather than succumbing to defeat or rising to try again, can choose a different path. On Flatland, the inhabitants are all two-dimensional shapes. Women are triangles and men are polygons with four or more sides. Because they see and move in only two dimensions and cannot view each other from above or below, the Flatlanders perceive themselves not as the shapes familiar to us from geometry, but as lines of varying lengths. Flatland’s protagonist is a lowly Square. When a Sphere drops into his plane of existence and briefly plucks him out of Flatland, he becomes aware that although he experiences his world as two-dimensional, it, too, has a third dimension, the dimension of height. His mind opens.
Working with clients, I feel like the Square, whose viewpoint was once limited but who can now sense greater possibility and thereby turn “failure” into an opportunity to explore a reality never noticed, had there been “success.” The trick is to encourage them to say, “I thought I was going there, but now I’m here,” and then to ask, “What is happening here?”