How Should we Perceive Failure and Success?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” ~ Truman Capote

None of us are immune to vicious slurs or criticism. Nicknames and labels such as ‘loser’ and ‘washout’ and other derogatory terms only serve to further stigmatise the social perception of failure. Or, if I can put it another way, the fear of being called, labelled or thought of as a failure is a fate worse than death for most of us (me included).

parentingI have a  sweet memory of my dad from when I was about six years old, and I was upset after I had been bullied in the local park. He told me a rhyme. Most likely many parents have used it themselves, and I certainly have with my kids. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

However, I’ve often found verbal violence more insidious than physical violence. It can be harder to brush off.  Somehow emotional wounds seem to last longer and cut you to the core. What if they have a point?

If you look closely at someone’s motivations for dissing you or your work, you may see that jealousy, and their own feeling of inadequacy or lack of understanding to be on their emotional agenda. There’s a big difference between constructively helping someone improve and handing out a character assassination or cruel taunts.

Marianne Williamson asserts that it’s not our failures we are most afraid of, but our successes. Fear in any form is worth remembering as False Evidence Appearing Real.

Let’s face it – none of us would do anything if we constantly worried about the outcome. We just have to do our best and be okay with the consequences. Once those negative thoughts take over it’s very difficult to motivate yourself for future projects and work.

success-is-the-ability-to-go-from-failure-to-failure-without-losing-your-enthusiasm-failure-quoteI remember reading the story of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, which had a disastrous premiere in 1897, and on top of that the work was given disparaging comments from music critics. Rachmaninoff was left feeling depressed and didn’t compose any major works for quite some time.  Luckily for us he bounced back and produced his much loved legacy of orchestral and piano music, including his immortal piano concerto number 2, which is universally adored. What if he had given up when the going got tough? The same can be said of Beethoven, and many other artists and composers.

Walt Disney approached many banks to get his theme park off the ground. Michael Jordan missed a lot of shots.  The best of us have failed, and failed spectacularly.  Edison ‘failed his way to success’.

It takes courage to express yourself authentically in your work and your life. Opinion is a fickle commodity, and should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Everything in literature, art and music is highly subjective, and will be approached by people from their own unique filter and experiences. The main opinion that matters about you and your life is yours. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to please, but we shouldn’t let other people’s opinions rule us. It’s good to take counsel, have constructive feedback, but ultimately the decisions we make should come from our own heart.

That said, it can be tricky to maintain a positive attitude when you are pursuing a dream, but others looking in don’t quite see it that way and are enthusiastic about telling you!

Theodore Roosevelt ~ The Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, 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.

I think that Rudyard Kipling also summed up the attitude of resilience beautifully in his poem IF:

I have listed a few personal thoughts on the subject I hope you will find helpful in dealing with the fickle beasts of ‘success and failure’. Let’s learn to treat those two impostors just the same!

5 Tips for keeping Mentally Strong

  1. It helps not to think of things in terms of success and failure. Very often a situation or result that could traditionally be deemed as a ‘failure’ will later manifest as a success down the road, in ways that you can never comprehend at the time.
  2. It’s up to you to decide what means the most to you. What is it that will give you satisfaction and fulfilment regardless of the outcome? Your friends and family and wider social circle aren’t the ones walking in your shoes.
  3. a-woman-is-like-a-tea-bag-you-cant-tell-how-strong-she-is-until-you-put-her-in-hot-water-quote-1Many of the experiences that I considered as the lowest points in my life have served to strengthen me and give me the courage to know that if I overcame that then I can overcome this… What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  4. Persistence is more important than talent. You can learn what you need to know, try and fall short, try again, change and learn from what you are doing, (except perhaps how to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon!). With each draft of my novel I learnt more, and I’m still a beginner on my writing journey. Very often we learn best kinesthetically, by actually doing something. Our brains develop plasticity and memory to enable us to improve at an activity. Toddlers don’t say, ‘right, that’s it mummy and daddy, you’re going to have to carry me around for the rest of my life, I can’t walk!’ No, they can see everyone else walking and they are going to do it come hell or high water.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t go according to plan. I have been the worst when it comes to mental self-flagellation, but it only serves to bring you down even more. Very often, the works that humanity consider to be of the highest pinnacle of achievement underwent many years of blood, sweat and tears, were revised and criticised, and perhaps weren’t appreciated fully at the time they were created. No experience is ever wasted. Encourage others, and soon that ethos will extend to your own life.

Don't Quit

Lastly, remember that any perceived ‘failure’ is only temporary unless you give up or don’t use the experience constructively.  Although we all feel better about having a measure of ‘success’ it’s nearly always our failures that we learn the most from, and without which we could not be successful in any definition of the word.

No one is perfect, so we should cut each other some slack. If you can love yourself, the well-meaning opinions and labels of others won’t be the crushing blow that defines who you are.

I don’t believe it’s right to judge how successful a person is purely by their bank account. Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi would not have qualified for a life of inspiration or global icon status if their personal wealth was the only measure of their worth…

Einstein suggested that rather than striving to be a success, one should try to be a person of value. Wise words indeed.

In answer to the question posed by my title, we should not perceive success and failure as the be all and end all of everything. Perhaps we should just take the view that its all valuable life experience there to teach us something. And that’s the bottom line.

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” ~ Zig Ziglar

2 thoughts on “How Should we Perceive Failure and Success?

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