Success and failure are slippery and complex concepts. Some types of failure, the simple antonym to success, can be devastating. A car fails and people die. A pregnancy fails with the loss of a precious life. Mental health fails leading to breakdown and suffering. No one sane wants to court this type of failure. As James Altrucher comments:
There’s this “cult of failure” that has popped up recently. That you need to fail to succeed.
This is not true. Failure really sucks. You don’t want to fail.
There’s also failure that arises from negligence. When we fail to live in the moment, when we don’t attend to something crucial, terrible things can happen. Anything from an oil spill wiping out ecosystems to emotional damage to a loved one who knows we’re not there for her.
There’s nothing attractive about this type of faiure. However much we manage to learn from it on reflection, it would always have been better to get the learning in another way.
Moreover, when we’re dealing with the type of failure that comes from our own negligence, it’s not appropriate to relabel it as ‘success’ or ‘learning’ to duck the responsibility. There are times when the things that go wrong are shouting out for us to pay attention and do some deep reflecting.
And yet, when Samuel Beckett advises:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
I’m completely in agreement, which leads me to thin that what we mean by failure isn’t a monolithic thing. And it’s this other sort of failure, the type that involves taking risks, that we can redefine as success. In this sense, you don’t need to succeed, that is you don’t need to realise every goal in exactly the way you’d envisaged it, be a success.
1. Inversion isn’t always failure
The common question, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ is a useful shorthand for the Stoic notion of inversion. Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, practiced premeditatio malorum, or ‘premeditation of evils.’
The idea was to consider the worst outcomes of an action. What if this results in bankruptcy or losing my home? What it this leads to everyone disliking me?
The point of the exercise was to anticipate possibilities in order to plan better and think about how to manage worse case scenarios. And it was also a way to overcome fears. As Paulo Coelho says:
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
But inversion isn’t always about failing. Not only does this exercise help us to think about what might happen and prepare as far as possible, but it also provides an alternative way of thinking in general.
As James Clear points out:
Inversion is often at the core of great art. At any given time there is a status quo in society and the artists and innovators who stand out are often the ones who overturn the standard in a compelling way.
Great art breaks the previous rules. It is an inversion of what came before. In a way, the secret to unconventional thinking is just inverting the status quo.
And it’s not only art. A mathematician might invert a difficult problem in order to reach a solution.
Too often the definition of ‘success’ is being popular, going with the status quo, pursuing goals that everyone else values and expects you to aim for.
Inversion challenges this. What you end up with might not be ‘success’ in the eyes of the crowd, but it might very well be innovative, ground-breaking and exactly where you want to be.
2. Taking a chance is an antidote to perfectionism
Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis. On the one hand perfectionism demands of you that you can do everything: achieve ten goals before breakfast, produce a manuscript with not one comma out of place … On the other hand, it’s demands are so preposterous that you will stop in your tracks and procrastinate rather than risk failure.
Of course aiming high is good. Of course you should improve your craft. As an editor I’m a fan of putting in the work, making things excellent, stretching our boundaries as writers. But there is also a time to let go. And there are times when you need to take a chance. As Brené Brown puts it:
Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?
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