Failure is one of our most precious assets and vital tools. It has regenerative potential.
For decades now in the West we’ve worshipped success as the ultimate aspiration of our lives here on Earth. And not only is it the ultimate aspiration, it’s maybe the only one. Success is everything – whether it’s in business, sport, creative pursuits or just in our personal relationships or family lives.
It would appear that success is the only validating principle which counts for anything anymore. Yet success has become an obsessive fetish and failure a pejorative label to stigmatise and immobilise.
Modern society has elevated success to unprecedented and unrealistic heights. Like money, success has become an end in itself – and it’s the only desirable goal. This is, of course, completely absurd and indeed damaging. After all, when we see a toddler tumbling to the ground as they take their tentative first steps, do we brand them as a failure who will never walk? Or do we accept the crucial point that success only comes through a series of apparent failures?
We spend billions on motivational, positive-thinking, how-to-be-a-success and self-improvement courses. We use everything from opening our chakras and crystal-healing to meditation and Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques to unlock our inner potential and win friends and influence people. We hang on every last word of well-heeled gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. It sometimes strikes me that we’d worship a Coca-Cola can if we thought it increased our chances of being successful.
So today success isn’t just a desirable goal or even an essential one – it’s the only one. After all, only a fool would want to fail – wouldn’t they?
The mass media manufacture ludicrously artificial notions of success and failure. How often have we seen them heap praise on an up and coming celebrity, building them up to god-like status only then to assassinate and destroy the very personality they themselves created?
My view is that we take a far too simplistic, narrow-minded and naїve view of success. Apart from anything else, we have hazy notions as to what really constitutes success in the first place. As with consciousness itself, we often find it very difficult to actually define what success really means.
Let’s face it, very often there’s a very fine dividing line between success and failure. As the Law of Polarity teaches us, everything contains elements of its opposite. So, nothing is purely black or purely white. Nothing is completely hot or cold since neither of these are absolutes but merely degrees of heat or cold. Let’s not forget that there are no absolutes – apart from the Absolute itself.
Success and failure are therefore entirely relative and very subjective concepts. And a success in one area may mean failure in another. For example, a glittering business career may well mean one or more failed marriages. A series of shattered relationships may eventually impart to someone the valuable lesson that they aren’t cut out for romantic liaisons. So, in this case failure here has proved to have a successful outcome.
It’s the same with good and evil. Nothing is one hundred per cent good or bad and even the most despicable evil act or event has some goodness coiled up somewhere in it – however hard it may be to spot.
Therefore, every success has elements of failure embedded within it and every failure is tinged with the possibility of ultimate success. Even the most disastrous failure may be highly positive if it provides us with a lesson and directs us to take a more appropriate course of action when we’re faced with similar circumstances the next time around.
Few succeed at everything they do and even fewer fail universally. Even getting through a mundane day can be a successful and rewarding experience – especially for those facing disadvantages or difficult challenges for whatever reason. Using public transport, driving on a busy road, negotiating with difficult people and conducting our daily financial transactions may be routine tasks. But most of us achieve them successfully for most of the time.
In fact, it’s failure and not success which truly defines us. And it not only defines us, it refines us, too. Failure can be an alchemical process which transmutes and improves us as individuals. It is also a form of forensic science – a useful analytical tool to maximise our learning. Yet successfully using failure requires personal honesty to achieve this. Failure can also motivate us by offering the steepest of learning curves. Success, on the other hand, can breed smug lethargy.
Yet the world we have created for ourselves is one where nearly everyone apart from fakirs, ascetics and monastic types crave material success on the physical plane – money, wealth, possessions, luxury goods, designer clothes, a desirable home, a new car or an attractive partner. We want successful, well-paid, prestigious careers. We want successful relationships, families and children. Above all, we want to be with other successful people.
We have been forced to see things only through the prism of success. We have no other template or means of measurement. Without an Oscar or other rewards, an actor is not fully successful. Without a best-selling record or book, musicians or writers simply haven’t made it and remain second-rate. A sportsman or woman has to win Olympic Gold or a world championship. A businessman has to make a billion. Unless you’re a rich celebrity, it seems you’re no one. Only success, we are taught, can give us a positive identity.
Intriguingly we don’t have such lofty ambitions when it comes to making a success of our own spiritual development. Here we have much more modest aspirations than we do on the material plane. We don’t tend to pursue our personal purification and evolution with anything like the same enthusiasm that we pursue profit or prestige. Or jogging. And we certainly don’t put as much effort in as some people do trying to preserve and enhance the beauty and efficiency of their physical bodies. Frankly, a great many people simply don’t care whether they succeed or fail when it comes to dealing with their own personal eternal journey. In truth, a lot of people don’t realise they’re even on such an adventure. But they do care about having that new designer sofa. Or becoming the star of a new TV show.
I’ll say it again. Success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a weasel word and rather a lame concept in my opinion. Success is perhaps not as desirable or indispensable as many of us think.
And it has to be put in context as the following story shows. A multi-millionaire was strolling along the beach of a quiet Caribbean island staring at miles of pristine white sand and listening to the lilting rhythm of the surf and the wind in the palm trees. A few minutes later he came across a young fisherman asleep underneath his upturned boat.
The millionaire walked up to the dozing man and gently shook him awake. The man stared up at the unwelcome intruder who had just interrupted such a pleasant dream about that girl on the next island.
“Let me give you some advice,” said the millionaire.
The fisherman rubbed his eyes, wondering what wisdom this well-dressed stranger was about to impart.
“If you weren’t sleeping you could be out on the water catching more fish. If you worked hard enough in a couple of years you could get another boat and then another until you built up a small fleet. Then you could afford to open your own cannery and make even more money. Do that for a few years and you could retire and doze on the beach all day.”
Pleased with helping someone progress in life, the millionaire proudly strolled off. And the fisherman went back to sleep.
Alongside death and disease, failure is one of those things which grips us with fear. It forms a tight knot in our solar plexus and makes us tense up. Failure is shameful. It is something which scares us and if it doesn’t it should. So, to face failure we have to face fear as well. Fear is a paralysing emotion and therefore difficult to defeat. Overcoming fear can have a far longer-lasting impact than all the pleasurable and satisfying experiences put together. Ask any soldier who has been into combat.
Some people do confront their fears. Some like living on the edge – not just fighter-pilots, extreme-sports enthusiasts or Arctic explorers – but others who overcome obstacles and engage in their own spirit of adventure.
Fazed by the inevitable difficulties put in our way, we can plod through life using only a tiny fraction of our immense capacities if we wish. We can go into permanent defence or even shut-down mode and simply refuse to experience all that life thrusts in our faces good or bad.
When we allow this to happen we become passive victims of experience not participants. Refusing to accept victimhood whatever the circumstances is always a victory. Victim status is the most demeaning surrender possible. The mass media feed vampirically off victims because victims are failures and failures are more editorially nutritious than successes.
Relinquishing fear is a powerful liberation. And when we look back on our lives we find that most of our fears were groundless anyway.
From an esoteric perspective most of us will have experienced every degree of fear from mild trepidation to outright terror many times during our many incarnations on this planet. No doubt we will have experienced the full spectrum of other emotions humans are capable of, too. We turn up periodically in physical bodies here on Earth with the sole/soul purpose of gaining as much experience as we can to fuel our own evolution.
Everyone is quite happy when things go well and life is sweet. But when circumstances become difficult and even toxic, this is where we’re tested, challenged and stretched to new limits. This is where we do most of our real learning – more through overcoming adversity than wallowing in success. People often call this The School of Hard Knocks and rate it better than any academic institution however prestigious – even though you don’t get a diploma at the end of it.
Yet whether our lives have been broad successes or failures is somewhat irrelevant. Value is only added by our willingness and ability to derive as much learning from these experiences – and modify our attitudes and actions accordingly.
Our attitudes are, of course, shaped by our life journey. And all too often – by the prevailing views of the majority. But there’s another crucial factor operating here – attachment. All esoteric traditions preach detachment in one form or another, insisting that over-attachment to anything be it relationships, possessions, food, careers or money can be damaging and distorting.
Over-attachment to anything leads to false perceptions because we judge people by those things to which they are attached – especially people and wealth – rather than the quality of who they are.
The problem of attachment becomes critical when we lose those people, positions or possessions we cling on to so frantically. When we lose them it’s as if we lose parts of ourselves because these attachments were almost extensions of our minds and bodies. Attachment can also hinder learning if we cling leech-like to outmoded beliefs we cannot shake off.
This is why loss is often not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s essential because getting rid of something frees up space for something else – experiences, relationships and opportunities.
Throughout our lives most of us have to take at least some risks. This comes easier to some people than others. We can’t bank on certainty. And if we consider ourselves adventurers that means being prepared to face and tackle the unknown – to get knocked down, pick ourselves up and start all over again.
It’s widely recognised that we live in an ever-increasingly risk-averse world. But we need risk to grow. Parents who are over-protective (often for the best of motives) wind up damaging their children through undue limitation. Our blame and compensation culture has much the same constricting effect.
Learning means not just extending our spiritual, intellectual or even emotional capacities but learning how to become fully responsible human beings as well.
When we understand and accept The Law of Karma – cause and effect – we appreciate that taking responsibility is the only available option if we are to be truly free. Whether we believe it or not our words, thoughts and deeds have repercussions. They mould our future lives and circumstances, forcing us to face our karma, the process used by the universe to harmonise and restore equilibrium to every individual, town or galaxy.
We have the capacity to become self-aware of how our negative, destructive or selfish acts in the past have moulded our present lives – as well as our positive behaviour. We have the opportunity to use our past failures to understand our present circumstances. Confronting and rectifying our current failures can shape our own futures.
Look at what success and the accompanying wealth and fame did to Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and a whole host of other celebrities. For them success wasn’t at all desirable. It wasn’t even a minor hindrance but a terminal condition.
Often success proves to be nothing more than a recipe for complacency, breeding laziness, greed and a misplaced sense of superiority. Failure, on the other hand, tends to have a much more edgy and exciting feel to it – in my opinion at least. It’s a lot more challenging than success. It takes a much more robust personality to be a successful failure than a total success. And as well as inertia, success often produces a blinding sense of illusion and separation.
You’d think anyone could live with the fruits of success – revelling in beachfront mansions and mingling with other millionaires, celebrities and the beautiful people. How hard can it be lounging on a yacht sipping fine wines or driving a million dollar sports car (not at the same time, of course)? Surely flitting off to Monte Carlo in the private executive jet weighed down with designer jewellery is a more pleasant option than driving a refuse truck or living in a shanty town?
It’s a lot more complicated than that. And much more sinister, too. When you look at lottery winners round the world, you realise that the sudden acquisition of an unprecedented financial fortune can have its dark and hugely destructive side. A sizeable proportion of people who get rich quick find that wealth has precisely the opposite effect to what they always hoped or expected. Some winners are broke within a year. Others drink themselves to death or become addicted to white powders. People lose their friends, neighbours and even family. Depression, isolation and loneliness often accompany the accumulation of a large stash of cash.
They have all this money. They thought it would make them happy. Instead it’s had the opposite effect. Success has actually led to failure.
Let’s not forget that success can equally be a killer. You’ve only got to look at the world of entertainment to see that it’s strewn with tragic characters broken on the wheel of fame and fortune. Some people jettisoned into the spotlight overnight face huge personal pressures finding that they can’t walk down the street without being stalked by autograph hunters or paparazzi. Even when it’s not a killer, success can canker personal relationships – and for some people be a sure-fire passport to re-hab.
Failure doesn’t have to be permanent. It can be the catalyst for success. It’s a potent motivation for keeping on keeping on. Many business people fail numerous times before they succeed. They learn persistence. You don’t learn persistence and determination by succeeding all the time.
Success is a dubious and inaccurate concept. The truth is that most of us fail at quite a lot of things during our lives – careers, relationships or lost opportunities. Often our failings taint, overshadow or even obliterate any successes we may have enjoyed. So, it’s failure rather than success which is the norm for most people most of the time.
Nevertheless, failure still scares us. It’s a stigma. In Hollywood it’s a disease. When your latest TV mini-series or novel is a flop people cross the street to avoid you and stop taking your phone calls because they’re worried that your failure is contagious and may infect them, too.
Maybe this is why we denude our bank balances buying books and DVDs full of dubious psycho-babble dreamed up by motivational gurus and the sages of cyber-space. We are seduced by the slick words of these latter-day snake oil salesmen preaching their How-To-Be-A-Millionaire mantras.
Only we ourselves can appreciate the measure of our own failures and use them to directly transform our lives. Failure is potentially a very potent and powerful tool and it’s about time we started assigning it the credit it deserves.
Anyone, then, can succeed. To survive failure – and grow from it – is a whole different ball game. We learn little or nothing from success apart from the fact that we have succeeded.
It holds few lessons in life for us. Failure is where the learning lies. Without mistakes, wrong outcomes and the miscellaneous personal mini-disasters we all encounter through life – we would acquire little new knowledge – especially of the spiritual variety.
Failure then is a valuable precision-instrument as well as a springboard. It’s a resource which helps us to improve and evolve. It’s a very reliable – and greatly unappreciated commodity and we should embrace it. The big paradox is that to get the most out of failure, you have to succeed at it.