Failure is definitely an option

Photo by Zara Walker

In After The Ecstasy, The Laundry, Jack Kornfield tells the story of the young man from a village in India who returns home after failing to complete his medical degree but opens an office and practices medicine anyway.

This is not, however, a story about fraud. The sign the ‘doctor’ puts on his door clearly states that he is an “M.D. Failed, Calcutta Medical School”. Kornfield finishes the tale like this:

Nevertheless he had returned home and opened an office, telling the truth about his lack of a degree and offering whatever medical knowledge he had gained. His office was a busy one. (p 209)

The failed doctor’s office was busy because in a remote village any medical knowledge is better than none.

Although we tend to think of success and failure as a binary state, there are, in reality, many degrees of failure.

I will never write Ulysses — obviously — but neither will I ever come close to writing a book like Ulysses. But there are thousands of novels that rank nowhere near the level of Ulysses that are both enjoyable and great works of art in their own right. The only failure for a writer faced with the perfection of Ulysses is to refuse to write.

I had lunch with a friend who now lives in Scotland. At Christmas he and one of his sons had ascended Ben Nevis. They didn’t make the summit because, as they crested one of the uppermost ridges, the wind and sleet picked up. It made sense to descend rather than force themselves on against the elements. They failed to reach the summit but they succeeded in a host of other ways. Making good choices; enjoying an energetic climb in beautiful surroundings; spending time together.

Failure is also subjective.

Every day we set ourselves up to fail because we list tasks to do and give ourselves deadlines. The tick on your to do list can only be present or absent: it never shows how close you are to your goal’s completion or any of the other things you achieved on the way to the goal.

When I plan to meditate for 20 minutes and circumstances make me end the sitting at 19 minutes, I have not failed in any meaningful way. I will have done 19 minutes more meditation than I might have done if I thought I would be interrupted after 19 minutes. The perfectionist in me would have postponed the sitting until I could be sure — if that is possible — that I could manage 20 minutes and not a second less.

Perfectionism and failure are not polar opposites; they are kissing cousins. And their primary source of fun is to make us feel bad for trying and for growing and for making progress.