Understanding Failure

Failure shows us what to avoid.

Success tells us what we must repeat.

The success-starved are lost because they do not trust their own judgments. They have no verification that their own judgments are credible. Like a disoriented man in the water, they have lost their sense of up, and are immobile because they fear swimming only deeper down towards the abyss.

A gulp of air, a flash of light, however brief would tell them “Yes, this is the way!” and lead them towards the surface.

So many of us have lost sight of the surface, and are either slowly suffocating or else swimming away from the air we so desperately need.

Today, I caught a glimpse of light and realized I’ve been swimming in the right direction for some time. It came just as I was beginning to doubt myself. Right at the point where I was going to change my aim, reality rewarded me.

Thanks, reality.

It is hard to overstate the importance of monitoring the world’s reactions to your desires and actions. Often we confuse intuition and passion with our rational faculty for calibrating to the external world.

Passion can guide you but rarely does it course correct.

Passion is the engine and rational analysis of the world is what steers the vehicle. You must have both if you are to reach your desired end. Otherwise, you will stall out, or crash head-on into one of the many obstacles arranged on the track.

 

 

Failure is Not Fun

Self-help junkies hate to admit that unfiltered self-expression inevitably results in embarrassing mistakes and mishaps. The romanticization of failure, struggle, and authenticity is a good thing, but it is rarely contextualized with concrete examples of failure.

When failure and the integrity it necessitates are kept in the abstract, they sound attractive indeed.

However, once we actually see someone acting with integrity around disapproving peers, or failing at something they are passionate about, the prospect of doing the same ourselves becomes repulsive.

From our privileged perspective as an outsider, we can say: “What a fool! Doesn’t he realize what he’s doing?”

The closer the failure is to us, the more likely it is to affect us and spread like an infectious disease, the more conservative we become with our own ambitions and creative instincts.

We fear the mess, the chaos, the rejection above all else. The fear and disgust for these things are programmed into us at the biological level. An intellectual understanding of the positive power of failure or the wondrous freedom of honest expression is not sufficient for overriding our instinctual aversions.

We must measure failure beside the ultimate goal towards which we aim. It is in regards to this goal that failure is necessary, and authenticity rewarded.

Failure is not good, but it can be useful.

Failure can hurt us, but aren’t there some things for which it is worth it to get hurt?

Authentic self-expression can lead to severed relationships, but what use is a relationship that honesty can break?

We must measure failure by the quality of our long-term outcomes. The approval of others is weak evidence for any given action’s utility in achieving our goals.

Other people don’t know what we are aiming at, or why.

We ourselves may aim at the wrong thing, and find that our vision of success was due to a failure in self-knowledge. Such pitfalls are numerous and necessary, but no amount of affirmations or mind-expanding quotes will change the simple fact that failure is a very painful thing.

The successful person does not love failure and rejection.

They choose a goal so large that pain and frustration are rendered insignificant.

 

Tiny Habits

We often think of habits as things to be perceived at the macro level, across long stretches of time. Rarely do we perceive the minuscule actions and thoughts that work in tandem to create what we perceive as a habit.

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“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

Take something as simple as coming home and immediately positioning ourselves in front of a screen for a comforting dose of entertainment.

The action of sitting and switching on the screen is only the last in a long chain of small decisions and allowances that have been made according to previously established and unquestioned patterns.

Perhaps one has a habit of mulling over all future responsibilities on the commute home, whilst listening to radio advertisements that remind the mind of a particular snack’s deliciousness.  This results in a pattern of stress that makes a run to the fridge the only natural action upon arriving at home, and the pleasure of entertainment the only way to drown out an overwhelming stream of disorganized worry.

These tiny actions and thought patterns can be easily observed in the early morning: our minds tend to default to a familiar set of mental images and emotions upon waking. These prime the next set, and those the next, and so on and so forth.

The term ‘autopilot’ is often used, but it fails to convey that autopilot systems are the result of thousands of tiny adjustments, decisions, and calculations that result in a predictable pattern of behavior.

This is why meditation is so powerful. By observing our thoughts for a mere hour, we can see the wellspring from which all of our mistakes, failures, and disappointments come. We can see the reason why day after day, year after year, things remain the same, and problems come and go like so many lights on the highway, each just like the last, stretching out behind us and into the horizon.

Being Your Own Parent

Over the course of years, I’ve slowly determined that most of my flaws and ugliest tendencies are simply the things my parents let me get away with as a child. I say this not to shirk responsibility, but because I think we often flatter ourselves and over complicate the causes of our pathology.

Whatever flaws I see in others I fast find in myself, among them a certain brattiness that masquerades as sophisticated angst or existential frustration. I look back at the style of temper-tantrum or pouting I performed as a kid, and catch myself doing a grown up version when things don’t go my way.

My parents let me retreat into my comfortable spaces far too often. I was allowed to retreat when I should have been helped up and told to get on with it. My room was a refuge, and when I didn’t play well with others I had toys and gadgets to replace them. That privilege granted me the luxury of an early introversion that probably had even less utility then than now.  The benefit of such an early start was that eventually, introspection got boring, like mining the same stone, again and again, allowing me to be frank about what was once hidden and unknown.

They say our personality is locked in by age 4. But what you can observe you can measure, and what you can measure you can change. I’ve put myself on a steady diet of self-observance, and in many ways become the stern parent for myself.

Being willing to do this dirty work might give me a fighting chance at changing course a bit, correcting the things that should have been corrected some time far back on an elementary school play ground.

Sometimes it feels a bit like watching a nature documentary where I myself am simultaneously the subject and viewer.

I’m not saying it’s fun. But it just might work.

Myth of the Tortured Artist

The “tortured artist” is one our society’s most toxic cultural archetypes. Not only because it puts forth an unsustainable identity framework for creative achievement, but because that framework isn’t effective for making great creative work possible. 

It is true that abnormally creative individuals are more likely to suffer from dramatic swings in emotion. But to assume that those swings are what makes creativity possible takes away from an artist’s authentic merit.

The tortured artist idea is simply another offshoot of that even more prevalent conception of creativity; that great works are produced in an unconscious, unwilled flash of brilliance, rather than over large amounts of time wherein a huge amount of competency within a medium is established.

The 20th century hosted an abundance of great talent, doomed to die at a young age. These culture heroes fell victim to the modern phenomenon of extreme and quickly cultivated fame, as well as a superabundance of powerful and unstudied drugs. In honoring them, it is important to separate their mistakes from their masterpieces and acknowledge that the lifestyle that destroyed them is not whatsoever what made them great.

In a perverse way, these assumptions actually make producing great works seem easier than it actually is. No one can sustain a flash of brilliance, or a period of profound depression over the amount of time it takes to become a great painter or novelist, or even to produce a single significant work. Most of the time in front of the canvas or blank page will be spent in mind state similar to that of a competent machinist or woodworker. The good work will come from long periods of deep focus and deliberate will. Such periods are not sustainable if one is depressed or manic.

Turbulent emotional spikes will perhaps give you a day of good work, but they will rob you of a lifetime of steady progress and production.

The proof is written in the historical record. With few exceptions, we see that minor talents are usually manic, drug addicted, and obsessed with a conception of creativity that relies on divine inspiration.

On the other hand, we see that the Shakespeares and Da Vincis of the world are highly industrious and of sober mind. This is not to say they were not emotional or sometimes divinely inspired; it is to say that such artists merely ornamented their creative lives with such extremes, and built the rest upon a solid framework of discipline and measured devotion.

 

Accepting Chaos

I have an important question to ask you.

How many actions do you witness on a daily basis that are in anyway motivated by concerted efforts towards virtue or rationality? Include your own actions in that census of course, and be honest with yourself.

For myself, the number of such actions is so small as to be negligible, to the degree that such striving towards virtuous action usually sticks in my minds for months. I pat myself on the back for good deeds and am flabbergasted when someone interrupts their normal programming to reach out a hand to help another or refrain from a reflexive and toxic behavior.

Most of what we do is done without conscious care or consideration. The philosophical principles we study and logically understand only come into play if we make a massive moment-to-moment effort. Of course, in our pre-agricultural society, this made perfect sense. Actions needed to be quick and instinctive.

But modern life has granted us copious leisure time with which we can design our own standards of conduct. Few use their free hours in such a way. Even fewer actually apply the lessons they glean from centuries of the written word.

Therefore, in dealing with ourselves and other people, it is important to understand we are not dealing with consistent belief systems housed in logical minds. Each and every one of us is a web of conflicting drives and subpersonalities that all vie for manifestation in action.

Rationality, logic, and morality are not the default ideals or modes of being. In fact, those very words and their conceptual contexts took millennia to develop. Don’t take them for granted, and don’t expect them or feel they are owed to you by the individuals that make up our civilized society.

High standards will save you, and transform your life. But if you expect them, demand them from the external world, you will become embittered and distanced from the environment. Or else you will fall into the trap of cynicism, and adjust your standards to match the brutality and thoughtlessness that exists all around.

Progress is achieved through aiming at an ideal, whilst meeting external conditions and your own psyche exactly where they are in the present moment. 

An honest acceptance of conditions is the necessary precondition to conforming them to a virtuous ideal.

The Danger in Goals

What is the point in attaining anything, if it does not bring you joy?

A simple, cliche question but the one that is most important in considering the setting of goals and achieving of outcomes.

Human beings do not desire objects directly; we desire the states of being those objects grant us. A luxurious car is only incidental to what is actually worth a million dollars or more; the sensation of having something difficult to create, and difficult to obtain. That pleasure is, of course, the real prize. If it were not, the million would be spent on simply the fastest, most intensely practical form of transportation, rather than a meticulously engineered work of art.

Consider this fact when aligning yourself towards a particular end goal. What is the state you are after, the thing which the object or desired condition will bring you? How will you feel in that state? How long will it last? What will be the thing to break it, or strengthen it?

Most importantly, consider if your goal is truly the thing necessary to bring about that state. Most of the time, our goals do not grant us the states we hope for, and if they do, those states last only a moment.