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After Failure

When we choose brokenness.

Woman lying on the ground, face covered by hair
Source: Free-Photos/Pixabay

Some people find failure so painful and unpleasant that they never undertake a project when failure is a probable outcome. The psyche in those cases has a kind of hidden fragility that resembles a well-managed medical condition: there is an ailment, but it doesn’t have devastating consequences.

At other times, it is not fear of failure, but failure that produces an ailment in the psyche and becomes incapacitating. While the fear is a sign of fragility, failure may result in actual brokenness. Why?

Perhaps we think that failure is always avoidable and so are unprepared for it. But it is not. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes: “Failure, then, failure! So the world stamps us at every turn.” Janes is right. He goes on to suggest that perhaps the humiliation we suffer in failure is key to the sense that life has meaning. If things were too easy for us, life may come to seem pointless. Why don't we all have James's view?


One answer has been proposed by psychologist Carol Dweck. She suggests that much depends on whether we think our talents and abilities are fixed or not. If we think they can always be developed further, we have what she labels a “growth mindset.” A growth mindset is contrasted with a “fixed mindset.”

Dweck’s proposal is nuanced, and I cannot do full justice to it here. (For instance, she does not think that we have exclusively one mindset or the other but likely a mixture of both.) What I wish to suggest, however, is that we can hold the belief that our talents are not fixed and still have excessive fear of failure or become incapacitated by defeat. In fact, I suspect the former may be true of Dweck herself. Interestingly, she says in an interview that she is very motivated by fear of failure, arranging her life in such a way as to not topple from her height. The explanation of this is unlikely to be a belief on her part that her talents are fixed; I imagine Dweck thinks they are not. Something else is going on.

Failure and identity

The first point I wish to note is that we perceive some failures as insignificant and even amusing. Thus, many of us – though not professional chefs – might speak without shame and indeed with pride about what terrible cooks we are. Perceived lack of significance here has to do with our sense of identity. If you have no aspirations of becoming a chef, you may not care about whether you can cook anything.

Other failures matter. They hurt, because the part of us that fails is a core part of the self. Importantly, when a failure breaks a person, the aspect of identity that’s affected may be seen as equal to the whole person. Everything else fades into the background. For instance, you may think you’ve failed as a parent, and that this somehow cancels out your professional achievements or vice versa.

Partial failure and the role of chance

There is more. We overlook the blurry boundary between success and failure. Success is hardly ever so complete as to be pure success without failure. There are flaws in almost everything we do.

In addition, factors other than the merits of our work play a role in success. Perhaps you learn that the coveted job you were offered was offered first to three other candidates, but they turned it down. You weren’t the top choice, but the 4th best. Or else you learn that something other than the quality of your work was instrumental.

Consider a striking example of the latter sort. An aspiring writer named Chuck Ross once set out to prove that factors other than the merits of a manuscript influence publishers’ decisions. What Ross did was submit the manuscript of a National Book Award-winning novel – Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps – to multiple publishers but under a different name. The manuscript was rejected by every publisher. Apparently, without Kosinksi’s name, publishers did not judge the prize-winning novel good enough to print it. Jerzy Kosinski was understandably unhappy about this.

On the flip side, failure is generally not complete failure either. There is likely something we did right or well. By the same token, as much as chance can play a role in success, it can play a role in failure.

I wish to suggest that we would be less likely to despair on account of failure if we kept these two points in mind: success and failure intermix. Failure affects us strongly when we perceive it as complete where complete success was the alternative outcome. But failure is rarely complete, and had we succeeded, success would not have been pure success either. Secondly, when we fail, that's generally partly due to bad luck, in much the way success is partly due to good luck. If history were replayed, the very same undertaking might end differently.

Where is the finish line?

In addition, the perception of failure often depends on drawing a line between trying and the outcome to be evaluated. But where does trying end? It is said of inventor Thomas Edison that he tried more than 1000 times to make a functioning light bulb before he succeeded. When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail so many times, he said he didn’t fail: that was simply how many attempts it took to make the light bulb.

This leads me to my main suggestion. There is a sense in which we decide what to call our own “failure.” Perhaps, it seems to us that we really did fail. But this is only true when further attempts are impossible, when there is a finality to the outcome. Finality, however, is rarely a feature of an outcome. More often, it is imposed on it by our own imagination.

Hope and failures that scar

There is a final point I wish to make here. Certain failures, particularly public ones, can leave scars. Reportedly, that happened to novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. After a successful novel, he published one that critics didn’t like at all. It is said he was scarred for a very long time.

But he did not stop writing. Why didn’t he? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the way he saw the future: he likely did not suppose that the fate of his unwritten novels would resemble that of the last one.

In letting ourselves be broken by failure, then, we overlook the role of chance, see finality where there might not be any, and we let the illusion of finality infect our image of the future, making the illusion reality by embracing it.

Importantly, hope for the future does not require warding off all hopelessness but rather, containing it. William Lynch, in Images of Hope, writes:

One of the best safeguards of our hopes … is to be able to mark off the areas of hopelessness and to acknowledge them, to face them directly, not with despair but with the creative intent of keeping them from polluting all the areas of possibility.

Lynch has a point. There may be no way to eradicate our inner fragility, and so no way to avoid cracks in the psyche. But brokenness after failure, the kind of incapacitating unraveling that makes us unable to go on is avoidable. Failure is always a thing of the past. It does not have the power to steal our future possibilities. We give those up of our own free will. An implosion may cause scars, but brokenness — that's a condition we choose.

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