A Perspective On Failure
“Forces always act in pairs. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” — Newton’s Third Law of Motion
“In order to regard anything as truly important, you also have to regard its loss as truly meaningful. And that means to open yourself up to experiences of deep meaning also simultaneously means that you have to open yourself up to the possibility of deep hurt and sorrow.” — Jordan Peterson
We don’t learn to walk without falling down, but somewhere along the way I started counting my falls instead of my steps. Opportunities missed, people that are gone, and time that has quietly disappeared. It’s become so natural to measure life in loss I hardly realize the weight of its growing emptiness. It’s just normal.
I know I am not supposed to do that. I believe in the steps — I believe in learning to walk, learning to run. Resourcefulness, endurance, and perseverance.
Loving life, and filling it with loves.
But the things I believe and the things that are actually real are not always the same things — and self-awareness is a difficult award to win, and sometimes even more difficult to accept. Truth can be ugly.
The truth is that I might be wrong about anything and everything I believe today. I might fail at anything and everything I attempt tomorrow. And it’s not just about where I’m going or where I am. What about where I was? What if I’ve already failed, and just don’t realize it? Biologists will sometimes observe a species that is presently still alive but cannot survive over time because of an event that has already happened (a depleted food source, a destroyed habitat, on and on). They refer to it as extinction debt. Do I carry that debt?
And even in the things I might be completely right about — it might not even matter. The world doesn’t quite seem to care how right someone is.
And even if I am right and it does matter — I could still have everything taken away in a mere handful of moments. A car accident. An active shooter. Bad news from the doctor.
There are only so many motivational videos I can watch. The pleas for a positive attitude seem one-sided and disingenuous. I can’t live life by ignoring the falls and only counting the steps. That feels dogmatic, fanatical even.
I don’t want religion or blind faith.
This is why Jordan Peterson’s observation above stuck out to me — to care about something means to also care about its loss. To live a meaningful life is to risk the possibility of deep hurt. Steps and falls.
The more I’ve thought about it — he’s wrong to call it a possibility. It may actually be a necessity. To live a meaningful life does not merely mean that I will be vulnerable to loss, but rather means it is inevitable I will be devastated by loss.
And the more I thought about it — I see this everywhere. It’s something I already accept throughout my life.
The Necessity Of Failure
For instance, I lift weights following a progressive overload plan. At the end of each week, I attempt to do three reps of a new target weight that will become the new starting weight for the next week. This means anything I am doing successfully one week, I can only do because I was only able to do a little of it the week before. I have to break my muscles down — often to the point of failure. The failure is critical so that I can recover stronger — and consequently lift the new target weight. If I didn’t iteratively fail, I wouldn’t iteratively progress. And sometimes it takes a while — a lot of failures until suddenly I can lift the new target weight.
Another example is in science — failure is a critical component of the scientific method. Something must be both testable and falsifiable. And even after all that work — all discoveries are held as tentative. People will always make new discoveries — and those new discoveries will be beholden to their failures: to get to Einstein we needed Newton’s failures which pointed to something more.
And the more examples I‘ve found, the more I’ve seen how foolish it is to expect some level of success without anticipating failures. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted, “If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat.” That suddenly makes a lot more sense.
In considering all of this, my perspective has shifted: success and failure are not opposites. They are brothers — on good terms with each other, always hanging out together. There is a fraternal love between them.
And this realization helps immensely.
This year I have also been frequently revisiting a speech by Teddy Roosevelt called The Man in the Arena. It’s worth listening to — less than five minutes. But he talks about the man who even “if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
And that’s the real failure that has no brother in success: knowing neither victory nor defeat.
To live a meaningful life means the failures I inevitably experience I will also care deeply about. They will hurt. Badly. But that’s the cost of meaning.
But even if my falls outnumber my steps and my losses outweigh my wins — I have still lived a meaningful life: I acted on the things that were important to me, embracing all that came with it. I dared greatly. And like a painter also using negative space to create their art, I can create meaning in both failure and success.
And so I summon my grit, learning from both the steps and the falls so that I can walk, then run. I have to stick with the fight — even world champions step out of the ring bloody.
I will love life, and fill it with loves.
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” — CS Lewis