Failure: More Reflections

About a month ago I wrote a post as part of my ongoing reflection on the arts and failure.  In it, I argued against the way we talk about success and failure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately and I’ve come to the conclusion that failing may be the great American taboo.  People will go on television and talk about their sex lives, their medical problems, their psychological traumas, but they will rarely speak or be invited to speak about their failures unless it is in the context of how they overcame them on the path to success.

I wanted to read a bit about failure and almost all of the books I could find on the subject are not really about failure at all.  They are about failure as a stepping stone to eventual and inevitable success.

I bring this up because thanks to the magic of Word Press trackbacks I’ve recently discovered one of my more recent posts on the theme of failure cited with an article that takes exactly the position I described.  “Do not fear failure, it is just a stepping stone on the path to success.”

So I want to come back to this theme.

The beautiful failure I am talking about is not a hard lesson on the path to success. It is not a setback or stepping stone. It is doing something with no guarantee, and indeed no likelihood, that there will be worldly success at the end. It is accepting, with a full heart that there may not be a pay off, that you may never attain the worldly success that you dream of.   Or as I explored in the ballet themed posts featuring David Hallberg, you may never even live up to your own standard, your own dreams of your potential as an artist.  You work anyway. You do it because it is what gives your life the greatest sense of meaning.

What is wrong with holding to the dream that success is inevitable and using this as your guiding star?

I just don’t think it carries you far enough.  The notion that success is inevitable if you are skilled and persistent enough carries with it the idea that if you do not have success (after a certain amount of time) you must not be good. This is simply untrue.  It also carries with it the idea that without this kind of success there is no reason to do it.  It is, in essence, a recipe for suffering in silence and shame and then quitting.

I recently returned to Victoria Nelson’s book On Writer’s Block, and I came across a passage that touches on what I mean:

Considered in the narrow prism of professional recognition and monetary reward, the vast majority of serious writers can be said literally to lead disadvantaged lives. They must hold another job. They must be willing to sacrifice, for a lifetime, quotidian status, money, or even recognition from their own field. This is a test of character that most professions don’t require of their initiates. In what other vocation can you do your most advanced and difficult work– at the level of, say, a full professor– while holding the position of department secretary (and receiving the equivalent wage)?… given the inverted value of our society… being excluded from the biggest rewards may not be such a terrible fate, and in some cases may even be a psychological life saver. Though it may seem mad to say this, lowered expectations can be an advantage to the serious artist… By the ‘right spirit’ I mean not one of passively accepting or caving into the social status quo but of making a pragmatic decision to capitalize on whatever opportunities for deeper development marginalization does offer.  Since having little money is a reality anyway, an inner decision not to count on large financial rewards or wide recognition means you will be more likely to stay on your own path in this complicated business of writerly unfolding.

The business of artistic unfolding is, indeed, a complicated one, and I do not pretend to have the answers or to offer this as a pep talk or how to.  What I can say is that I have personally found it easier to do the work and stop beating myself up when I embrace the beauty of failure instead of denying it and railing against it.

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