Dao Du Jour, Day 79: Successful Failure

“Failure is an opportunity.

If you blame someone else,

there is no end to the blame.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

When Marx described the concept of “ideology,” he used a powerful metaphor: a “camera obscura,” in which the image of an object is turned upside down. Ideology presents up as down, black as white, wrong as right. Consider the most engrained metaphor of our modern mythology: “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Orwell said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle” because people are always trying to draw your attention away from the plain truth. A quick look down at your shoes dispels the myth: the action is impossible to perform.

At around the same time that corporate America and its pacing car, Silicon Valley, began embracing meditation in the workplace as a way to goose productivity, thought leaders began to extol the virtues of failure: “Fail early, fail often.”

As is often the case with the conventional wisdom in American self-help and business culture, it is hard to separate the latest corporate cant from the kernel of wisdom it contains. Ideologies only work if they make contact with the truth, however tenuous. It’s easy to run the standard leftist critique of the new gospel of failure: it’s a form of mass gaslighting that makes people fucked over the by the system–that is, most people–think that it’s their fault–they didn’t work hard enough–not a function of the system being rigged against them; serial failure is a privilege for the few predicated on a secure cushion of success provided by family, social capital, education, etc.; it legitimizes the legion disruptions that Big Tech has wrought on our brains, our economy, our politics, and our culture over the last two decades; it is, in short, kind of what capitalism does.

All of that is (partly) true. But we mustn’t let the satisfaction such analysis yields lull us into smug complacency. That would be a failure of imagination and introspection. For the very same mantra used to needle workers into blaming themselves for failure can be turned around to puncture the “bootstrapping” bubble. Failure is an opportunity to examine your vision of success.

Note that Lao-Tzu does not instruct you to blame yourself as opposed to someone else. He implies that blame itself is a kind of failure, and not the good kind. The Stoic Epictetus thought the same: “An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” Taking responsibility and correcting mistakes is not the same as assigning blame. If you blame yourself, “there is no end to the blame,” because you will begin to identify as a failure.

If failure is an opportunity, then success is a danger. And the greatest enemy of success. If you identify with being successful, you will set yourself up for failure. You will be clinging to your past achievements and the reputation they afforded, and as time passes reality will begin to diverge from that image. Your success will become a camera obscura distorting your vision of what is in front of your nose. You may fend off failure for awhile this way, but by failing rarely, you will fail big. If you fail early and often, the failures are likely to be small, and you can make the necessary course corrections to realign with reality. You will, in short, learn. You will learn better how to swim, rather than just treading water.

Real success is to be constantly succeeding yourself. Real failure is to be constantly succeeding.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”