When Failure IS an Option
Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
In our success-driven culture, 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 don’t 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 we will achieve what we strive for and believe that when we don’t, we have failed. Striving for what we want is a natural part of our makeup, but attachment to the outcome of those strivings can imprison us.
For a young client whose motto was “Number 2 is the first loser,” success meant being the best at anything he tried. The pressure of being Number 1 was constant and he lived in a nightmare of fear that someone, somewhere, was better than he was. He was good at what he did, but he also became the most “successful” drug abuser I’ve encountered. Losing his fear of failing to meet an impossible standard was his first step toward recovery.
In my own life, as a boy, taking failure off the table made me valedictorian of my high school at the expense of a lopsided life. As an adult, never giving up kept me in doomed relationships and unsatisfying occupations. When things fell apart, the “lessons” of failure did nothing to avert despair. Only by abandoning these guidelines have I been able to find freedom.
I wonder even about inspirational tales of success. Thomas Edison, when asked about his relentless 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?
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 now. Perhaps we 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.
Understanding the opportunities implicit in failing came to me most clearly on the day of my near-death experience. That afternoon, I was cranky and irritable, annoyed with the nurses and my girlfriend because of the inconvenience of being in the hospital, away from everything that seemed vitally important to achieving success as a college 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 been enriching in ways that could not have occurred if I’d succeeded in achieving my original goals?
Sometimes I use Flatland, a short novel written by Edwin Abbot at the end of the 19th century, 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. These unusual beings move about on the surface of their flattened world seeing only length and width. Because they 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 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.
These days, I feel a lot like the liberated Square, whose viewpoint was once limited to two dimensions but who can now sense an additional one: the dimension of possibility. When we add that dimension, we can all turn “failure” into an opportunity to explore a reality that could not have come into being, had there been “success.” The trick is to be willing to say, “I thought I was going there, but now I’m here,” and then to ask, “What is happening here?”
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