“Success or failure: which is more destructive?”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
It was not enough for us to enshrine “success” as the meaningless and therefore unattainable goal of the game of late capitalism. We also had to go ahead and fetishize “failure.” George Carlin quipped that in America, you never have to die; you get to just “pass away.” In the same vein, “failure” just brings you closer to “success,” so we—or rather, the Silicon Valley influencers who were the few lucky winners who despite their brilliance and heroic industry are either monstrously deluded due to their success or cynically gaslighting those less fortunate and whose products and platforms are causing the psychological and political equivalent of climate change—tell young people to fail early and often. Fail up! Fail forward! Marx had a powerful image for how ideology works: a “camera obscura,” in which the true world is turned upside down.
I don’t mean to knock the value of grit, hard work, and risk-taking. These are essential virtues, and we almost always need more of them. I don’t mean to knock capitalism. In its healthiest form, it is both the most moral and the most effective and efficient way to organize our economic lives.
But at some point, cultural scripts about success and failure start to mess with people’s minds. This semester I am teaching a seminar for seniors on work and leisure. They are about to start their adult lives with, theoretically, greater advantages than most people their age in history: coming out of an elite university in the richest country in the history of the world. And they’re terrified. Yes, there’s the pandemic, climate change, the fracturing and fragilizing of democracy, the vertiginous inequalities of late capitalism. But I suspect they’d be feeling this way regardless of these swirling storm systems.
Cleansed of ideological distortions, though, the gospel of failure carries a grain of truth. Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard about success was that true success would be to succeed yourself. If you are not dying and being reborn every five or ten years, you’re probably doing something wrong. This is a more psycho-spiritual view of success. Failure is “not an option,” it is a necessity. Not because complete success is possible, but because everything is built to fail. Rather than embrace this truth, the American mind chases a fantasy of perfect, permanent success, and when reality does not bend to its influential wishes and the soul or body breaks down, it calls that failure success in disguise. It tries to make the whole world yang, and when yin asserts itself, it says white is the new black.
Today’s chapter closes: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” The serpent gets a bad rap in Genesis, but in the ancient near East, the serpent was a sacred animal and a symbol of eternity. The snake regularly sheds its skin. As Joseph Campbell puts it, the serpent represents the power of eternity in time, the force of life continually casting off dead weight, regenerating itself, being reborn. The snake’s skin fails, and it succeeds itself. The snake is not how it appears to others. The snake is not its skin. It is the sinuous line slithering across and around the yin/yang symbol.
Don’t follow the snakes advice and try to be like God. Try to be like the snake.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”