Failure is an Opportunity.
Success is as dangerous as failure.
These two lines appear in the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching. They look fairly contradictory next to each other, but what if we really look at their context.
Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.
Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.
Chapter 13 deals specifically with how we make success and failure a dichotomy, and then offers us a sort of “middle way”. Being that success is about attaining a goal, and failure is literally the non-attainment of the goal how can we lead lives that seek neither? If you want to “move forward” in life it seems almost impossible to avoid success or failure. If you look for more insight in other translations of this chapter, or read more about the history of the Tao, you can find out that this section is specifically about leadership. What now do you see? Specifically if you just look at the fourth stanza. “See the world as your self.” How does that reflect on success and failure? If you want to lead a life that is amazing, but is not intent of proof of your worth, then living in a manner that allows you to be vulnerable is far better than simple success.
Why do I say vulnerable? Because if you use equanimity when you meditate on your self, or the world, you have to expose yourself to truth. Seeking truth often makes us vulnerable. Being able to admit our shortcomings is quite a hill to climb. You have to draw up your humility to be able to truly be comfortable enough to witness your self for who you really are. That is far more important that success.
Additionally, this chapter defines legacy. True legacy is not about the success of individuals, but about the continuance of a society. Sure society will contain success and failures, but the ongoing legacy is dependent on people who never seek accolades.
Chapter 79 contains the seeds of conflict resolution. In other translations this chapter is very straight forward. The literal ones talk about contracts, and agreements. The Stephen Mitchell one is casting a wider net. It is encouraging all of us to think about what can come of conflict if we seek to lay it to rest rather than “come out a winner.” It is also about moving through failure so that you can build upon it. It also offers more depth to the intent of the passage. Because conflicts arise from failures in communication, or disagreements how do we properly create an opportunity? If we genuinely want peace between us how do we attain that? By putting out a hand of reconciliation, by admitting where we went wrong, we can put out a raging fire.
Comprehending the true nature of these passages allows the wealth of knowledge within the Tao to shine brightly. If you just dissect a few lines they can quickly become a platitudes.
Part of the reason I wrote this was because of the relentless outpouring of writing on Medium about success. There seems to be a new “even more insightful” lecture every day. Truly amazing philosophy already exists. Consider picking up a classic and mining it for all it has to give.