Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.
I’m like most people: I spend a long time thinking that I am a failure. I see others posting updates online about personal triumphs and successes, and I feel like I don’t measure up. I’m not as successful as they are. I haven’t achieved as much. I have failed at work and failed at life. How can I do better?
I know that I am not alone in these feelings. As best I can tell, most people struggle with perceptions of failure from time to time. There is, now, an entire industry of books, events and podcasts dedicated to helping people cope with failure. The common strategy seems to be to encourage some kind of reframing. Don’t see failure as a sign of your inadequacy but, rather, an opportunity for growth. For example, Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail Podcast (and related book) takes this approach. As she describes it herself, the purpose is to interview people about their failures and see what these failures “taught them about how to succeed better”. In a similar vein, for many years, Silicon Valley startup founders participated in the now-defunct (?) FailCon, an annual conference celebrating failures in business and what can be learned from them. The message seems to have been: fail fast, learn and then pivot to something better.
Other efforts are afoot trying to normalise failure. For example, in academia, there was something of a fetish for ‘CVs of failure’ a few years back. The craze was started by Melanie Stefan with an article in the journal Nature. Stefan encouraged academics to keep a record of their failures in order to help others with their setbacks. The craze really took off when Johannes Haushofer publicly posted his own CV of failures, listing all the jobs he failed to get, grants he failed to win, and papers he failed to publish. For some reason his CV went viral and the idea grew legs. More and more people starting compiling lists of their own failures.
Despite my own struggles, my sense is that most perceptions of failure are irrational. This includes my own. We have vague and poorly formed beliefs about what constitutes success and what constitutes failure. This vagueness contributes to an over-ascription of failure (and success) to our own lives and hence a lot of unnecessary mental anguish. I think some philosophical analysis and reflection might help to rid us of some of these irrational beliefs. That said, I think it is hard, in the modern world, to completely rid ourselves of a sense of failure.
I try to explain why in what follows. I proceed in four stages. First, I will engage in some conceptual analysis, explaining what failure is and how it differs from similar concepts such as regret and rejection. Second, I will look at the different ways in which people can fail, paying particular attention to the various ‘levels of abstraction’ at which we can understand ourselves and our failures. Third, I will argue that many perceptions of failure are irrational insofar as they assume we have more control over our lives than we actually do. Fourth, I will consider some strategies for coping with the inevitability of failure.
1. What is failure?
I’ll start with the standard philosophical practice of clarifying the concept under consideration. What, exactly, is failure? As a first pass, I would say that failure can be defined, roughly, as follows:
Failure = a phenomenon that arises whenever we have made some effort, or ought to have made some effort, to achieve a goal or attain a standard, but have not done so. This is typically, though not necessarily, associated with negative self-directed emotions. These emotions can include things like shame, guilt, blame and so on.
This definition captures three important ideas. First, that failure is defined relative to some goal or standard, i.e. for failure to exist there must be some outcome we were trying to realise or some standard of excellence we were trying to obtain, but failed to do so. Second, that failure is linked to perceptions of control and responsibility: we believe that it was within our power to obtain the goal or standard. Third, that failure is often, though not necessarily, associated with negative personal emotions. We tend to feel bad about ourselves as a result of our failures. I say that these negative emotions are ‘not necessary’ because, as noted in the introduction, a common coping strategy nowadays is to view failures in a positive light: as something from which we can learn.
Failure, so defined, can be distinguished from other cognate concepts. Failure, for instance, is not the same thing as regret. I wrote a long analysis of regret on another occasion. There, I defined regret as a negative comparative emotion. We regret things we have done based on some counterfactual comparison with things we could have done or ought to have done. Many times, regret is linked to failure. If we pick some goal and fail to achieve it, then it is quite likely that we will regret several of the choices we made along the way. If I fail to achieve my goal of running a marathon before I am 40, I might regret all those times I chose to sit on the couch watching TV instead of training. But regret is not necessarily linked to failure. Sometimes we can regret our successes. For example, I sometimes regret that I have spent so much of my life writing academic articles. Writing and publishing those articles were goals that I set for myself and I have succeeded in achieving (many of) them, but doing so came at a cost: I could have spent that time doing something else. I regret the life I could have lived.
Failure can also be distinguished from rejection. Rejection is dependent on other people. If I submit an article for publication, and it is rejected, that is because other people didn’t like it, didn’t like me, didn’t feel that it measured up to their standards and so on. Acceptance by other people can often be part of one’s personal goals and ambitions. In this sense, failure can arise, in part, because of rejection by other people. If we take Johannes Haushofer’s CV of failures as an illustration, then we can see that most of his examples of failures are, in fact, rejections by other people. All those jobs he failed to get, grants he failed to win and articles he failed to publish were, at least in part, the result of rejection. But failure doesn’t have to be linked to rejection. You can set yourself goals and standards that are not dependent on the approval and acceptance of others. Indeed, one of keys to overcoming the dark side of failure might be to set goals that are not so dependent on other people.
Finally, failure can be distinguished from loss. This is a distinction that Beverley Clack makes in her book How to be a Failure and Still Live Well. Loss is an inevitable part of human life. We all age, we all die, we all fade away. Everything we care about will eventually be lost. Loss is beyond our control; failure is not. As Clack puts it:
The notion of failure reflects a sense of responsibility for an outcome that could have been avoided. Loss, on the other hand, cannot be avoided, regardless of how careful we are, for its experience reflects the very nature of life.
As we will see in a moment, one of Clack’s main arguments is that many things we currently perceive as failures are better perceived as a form of loss, and when we perceive them in this way we might lose some of the negative emotions associated with failure. You cannot blame yourself for the inevitability of loss.
2. The Many Different Faces of Failure
There are many different ways to be a failure. This is one of the reasons why perceptions of failure are so common. In the definition just provided, I suggested that failure is linked to both goals and standards. This gives rise to two primary forms of failure:
Goal-related failure: This is a discrete failure to achieve some particular outcome, e.g. failing to run a marathon, failing to get a book published, failing to show up to your child’s football game.
Standard-related failure: This is a more general and potentially ongoing failure to achieve some standard of performance, e.g. failing to be honest with your partner, failing to be diligent in responding to emails, failing to try your hardest at work.
This is just the beginning of the complexity of failure. Pretty much everything we do can be said to have some combination of goals and standards attached to it. Consider running a marathon. The goal might be to finish the race in under four hours. The standard might be to maintain focus and determination throughout the race. It is possible to fail at one or both of these things. Admittedly, the distinction between goals and standards is a bit fuzzy. I like to think of standards as things that apply throughout the performance of some activity and goals as what is supposed to happen at the end of the activity. But some standards can be broken down into discrete sub-goals. For example, if I wish to be diligent in my responses to emails, I could set myself a series of sub-goals that might help me to obtain that standard, e.g. respond to 5 emails before 10am each day. Still, despite its fuzziness, I think the distinction is useful.
Since pretty much everything we do comes with some combination of goals and standards, this means that the possibility of failure is endemic to human life. Nevertheless, I think it makes sense to analyse failure as something that can arise at different levels of abstraction. Two such levels strike me as being particularly important:
Task-related failure: This is failure that is associated with specific tasks that we perform. These tasks can be discrete, one-off affairs (e.g. running a marathon before the age of 40) or repetitive daily habits (e.g. responding to email). The point is that they are reasonably specific and temporally-bounded activities. They start and end at identifiable times.
Role-related failure: This is failure that is associated with different roles that we occupy in life. Roles are usually made up of bundles of tasks and standards. Some roles persist throughout our lives (e.g. being a citizen), some are temporally bounded (e.g. being a member of a jury). Some roles are self-chosen (e.g. being a writer) and some are socially constructed and imposed upon us (e.g. being white/black etc).
Role-related failure is probably the most interesting kind of failure. Roles can be large or small and oftentimes come with shifting goals and standards. It is, consequently, easy for failure to persist in social roles and for us to perceive ourselves as failures across multiple roles. Thinking just about myself for a moment, here are some of the roles I occupy and some of the perceptions of failure that could be associated with them:
Academic failure: I am a failure as an academic because I have not published enough, supervised enough PhD students, won enough research funding etc etc.
Gender failure: I am a failure as a man because I am not strong enough, tough enough, financially successful, emotionally stable etc etc.
Parental failure: I am a failure as a father because I have not spent enough time with my children, provided for them adequately, given them a headstart in life etc etc.
Citizen failure: I am a failure as a citizen because I have not voted in recent elections, become involved in local organisations and activities, kept up to date with political news etc etc.
To be clear, I am not claiming that I actually do perceive myself as a failure across these multiple roles. My point is simply that because I occupy multiple social roles, and because each role has goals and standards that I could fail to obtain, it possible for the perception of role-related failure to be quite persistent and pervasive. This is why I suspect that perceptions of role-related failure are often the most psychologically troubling.
3. The Irrationality of Perceptions of Failure
Although the possibility of failure is endemic to human life, I believe that many of our perceptions of failure are irrational or unwarranted. In particular, I think we have a tendency to over-ascribe failure to our lives and that this is responsible for much unnecessary torment. In support of this thesis, I offer the following four arguments.
A1 - The Imprecision Problem
Oftentimes we have a very imprecise conception of the goals and standards we need to attain in order to be successful. This is particularly true for social roles that have multiple goals and standards and, hence, multiple dimensions along which success and failure can be measured. This can make us unsure of whether we are a success or failure and thus, depending on our mindset, make it easy for us to ascribe failure to our lives without warrant.
For instance, what does it mean to be a successful academic? One measure of success is the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals. This is a nice, readily identifiable figure. But how many publications is enough to be considered a success? Is 20 enough? 40? 120? I’m not sure anyone knows. In any event, sheer volume of publication might not be the best measure of success. Perhaps it is the number of publications in top-ranked journals? But, then, which ranking system should you use? Or perhaps it is the number of citations? Or h-index? Or i-10 index? Or maybe it is the sum of research funding you have been awarded? Or the number of PhD students you have supervised? Maybe it is the number of media mentions? Maybe it is all of these things? Maybe this is overly research-focused? Maybe we should focus on student evaluations of teaching? There are many different ways of measuring academic ‘success’ and it is very unlikely that anyone succeeds along all of these measures. Consequently, it is easy for perceptions of failure to persist.
The imprecision problem can also give rise to the problem of shifting-goalposts. Sometimes the goals and standards of success change. Sometimes the standard gets pushed higher. Sometimes it changes entirely. Peter Higgs — he of Higgs-Boson fame — once remarked that he would not be able to get a job as an academic scientist today because the standards had changed so much since he was a graduate student. The number of publications expected of entry-level academics nowadays is much higher than it was in the 60s. This was a startling and yet sobering admission. By any common-sense understanding of success, Peter Higgs is an extraordinarily successful scientist; but the modern version of him would not be given a chance to become a success. He would fail early and be filtered out of the system. This problem of shifting goal-posts can affect anyone in any social role.
The imprecision problem can also lead to the problem of limitless failure. If our goals and standards are imprecise, it is possible for us to constantly shift our own expectations higher: to want more and more. As a result, we are never happy and never appreciate our own successes. The arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was alive to this problem nearly two centuries ago. He claimed that the tragedy of the human condition is that we desire more than we can ever have. Once we satisfy one desire another one takes its place. Unless we escape the power of desire, we will live on a perpetual treadmill of failure.
A2 - The Lack of Value Problem
Oftentimes the goals and standards associated with success lack value. This can be true objectively — everyone looking at those goals and standards rationally and reflectively would agree that they lack value — or subjectively — other people think that they have value but they lack value for us. In addition to this, some goals and standards are ambivalent or multivalent. There is both good and bad associated with them. This means that what we initially think of as the sine qua non of success can turn out to be a bitter pill. If we obtain the standard or goal, we might change our mind and decide that it is not actually a mark of success. We will have failed even in our apparent successes.
Beverley Clack, in her book on failure, suggests that this problem is particularly true of some of the models of success that pervade the modern world. Clack is one of those academics that uses the term ‘neoliberalism’ to name a monster that must be slain. Neoliberalism is often poorly (if ever) defined. In this context, it means something like the tendency to view all human life and activity through the lens of economic markets and to use economic success as the ultimate measure of success. In other words, you, as an individual, are deemed to be a success — in a neoliberal world — if you are an economic success: you have a lucrative career, have lots of purchasing power, own the right bundle of assets (house, car etc). The problem is that this economic model of success is something that was imposed upon us. We did not choose it for ourselves. Also, many of its metrics of success lack value or are of dubious value. Owning the right assets can lead to high levels of indebtedness and ongoing financial anxiety. Having a lucrative career can suck away all your time and energy from family and friends. Is that really the mark of success?
Unsurprisingly, I am sympathetic to this line of argument. I have, after all, written an entire book about the problems with work and dangers of assuming that flourishing and meaning ought to be derived from one’s career. Clack’s point, however, is a generalisable one. We often end up following someone else’s script and living up to their ideals. It’s important to step back on occasion and ask yourself whether you are pursuing a path that you actually find valuable. If not, your success will be illusory and fragile.
A3 - The Finitude Problem
Human life is finite. We have finite time, finite resources and finite minds. This finitude is one of the defining features of existence. As noted earlier, Clack argues that finitude means that loss, as distinct from failure, is an inevitable part of human life. But even if we accept this distinction, finitude poses problems for our perception of failure too.
We occupy many roles in life and we have many choices to make. It is virtually impossible to be successful across all roles and choices. Sacrifices have to be made. This means that all of our successes tend to come with a significant, but unavoidable, opportunity cost. There are other things we could have done that would also have given us some sense of success, but we chose a different path that prevented us from doing so. The problem is that we don’t accept these opportunity costs. Our ambition is limitless and so we feel like failures for not having it all.
I mentioned, earlier, the example of writing and its opportunity costs. I have spent large stretches of my life setting goals for writing books and articles. I have succeeded in many (but certainly not all) of these endeavours. This has come at a cost. For example, it has meant that I did not spend time on teaching preparation or academic administration. This has been frustrating and led to a sense of failure when it comes to my performance in those work-related roles. But I cannot have it all. I cannot achieve the same level of success across roles.
I know this at an intellectual level. However, I continue to perceive myself as a failure for not achieving it all. This is irrational, but it is difficult to shake the illusion of failure. One reason for this is that external pressures constantly remind me of the paths not chosen and the failure that results. So it’s not just a matter of individual ambition, but external pressure that encourages this lingering sense of failure.
A4 - The Lack of Control Problem
The biggest problem with our perception of failure is our tendency to take responsibility for things that are not within our control. Again, this is not always a voluntary choice. Sometimes we are encouraged to see something as being within our control when it is not. This fosters perceptions of failure that are not really warranted.
I mentioned earlier the distinction between rejection and failure. You fail when your efforts fall short; you get rejected when someone else turns you down. Oftentimes failure and rejection get intermingled when the goals we set ourselves depend on acceptance by other people, but ultimately we don’t control how other people respond to us. Linking rejection to failure is not only unjustified but, I believe, a recipe for unhappiness.
As noted, writers and academics are frequently guilty of this. Academics think that they have failed if they fail to get published, win grants, get tenure and so on. But each of these successes depends on acceptance or rejection by some set of gatekeepers. It is a mistake to think that you can take responsibility for this and that rejection is a mark of failure. There are many reasons for rejections; some of them have nothing to do with you or the quality of your work. What you can take responsibility for (remembering what I just said about finitude) is how many grants you apply for, how often you write and submit articles for publication, how many jobs you apply for, and so on. If you are going to have metrics of success, this is what you should focus on, not on the acceptances. Here’s one possible example of this. Years ago, I mentioned how I liked the writing advice that Paul Silvia gives to academics in his book How to Write A Lot. He says that your goal should be to become the ‘most rejected author’ in your department. I thought this was an interesting reframing. Being frequently rejected means you haven’t given up; that you are still writing and submitting pieces. I don’t quite agree that being rejected should be the goal. But still trying should be and that means disconnecting what it means to be a success from rejection.
Of course, it is not that simple. If we are constantly encouraged to take responsibility for things beyond our control, and to link our perceptions of success and failure to those things, then we run the risk of perpetual disappointment. The aforementioned Beverly Clack dedicates a long chapter to gender and failure in her book How to be a Failure. It is an interesting cultural history of standards of success and failure for men and women, covering everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Germaine Greer. The key insight from it is that women’s standards of success are often linked to things they cannot control, in particular to beauty and fertility. You are a success, as a woman, as a result of physical traits that you may or may not have. Furthermore, since all beauty fades and fertility ends (notwithstanding improvements in technology), all female lives are doomed to end in failure because they will all inevitably lose what is supposed to make them successful. Everyone will experience these losses, but they are often more intimately associated with feminised standards of success. As Clack comments:
…there is a long history of the female body being used as a container for the anxieties which arise from the experience of being embodied beings subject to change. The body is never just a physical entity: it is always shaped by social mores and values. By exploring success and failure through concepts routinely played out on the female body, it is possible to discern powerful anxieties regarding loss running beneath cultural narratives of what it is to fail.
Linking female success to physical traits like beauty and fertility is not inevitable. It is, in part at least, socially constructed, but if you are a woman it is difficult to completely shake free of these socially constructed standards. You can acknowledge their contingency, accept that they are beyond your control, and try to follow your own playbook, but this will always be hard. This is the lesson for anyone in a similar situation.
4. Conclusion: Minimising Failure
I don’t want the wrong conclusion to be drawn from this analysis. I am not claiming that failure is not a real thing, nor that one cannot learn from failure. Of course it is and of course you can. Just as there is a danger of linking our failure to things beyond our control, there is also a danger of assuming we are powerless to change our fates.
But it is important to take a rational and sensible approach to failure. If I’m right, then failure is often over-ascribed and we torment ourselves unnecessarily as a result. Is it possible to correct for these misperceptions and live a more tranquil life? Possibly. I’m not really in the business of selling solutions; I haven’t got it all worked out and I’m suspicious of anyone that claims they do. Nevertheless, three suggestions emerge from the preceding discussion:
- Recognise that, since there are many ways to fail (many roles, many tasks), there are also many ways to succeed. If one particular role or task is not working out, try to focus on another (if it is within your power to do so). You cannot possibly succeed at everything; but you can succeed at some things.
- Be critical of the goals and standards that define your perceptions of failure. Take the time to step back and ask whether they really suit you and make you happy. Oftentimes, standards of success and failure are thrust upon us by external forces. They hold no value or allure for us. It may be hard to completely shake them, but you can at least recognise them for what they are and approach them with a healthy sense of the absurd.
- Focus on what is within your control. Try not to link your perceptions of success to things that are beyond your control. You will tend to be frustrated if you do. This is simple advice — standard since the time of Stoics — but harder to implement than you might think. It takes time to figure out what is really within your control and reorganise your goals appropriately.