Succeeding at Failure
Updated: Apr 4
Let us begin with some unsettling facts:
It is quite possible your death will be painful and frightening.
For some, death comes tragically early and unexpectedly.
For some, death comes much later and is fully expected, after years of the body and mind steadily deteriorating to the point vital organs no longer function.
If you live long enough, everyone you care about now will die.
I’m not trying to be macabre here; I’m simply trying to frame things in a certain context before we proceed.
Succeeding at Life
The thoughts above were echoing in my mind recently as I was reading a Medium article by Ayodeji Awosika entitled Embrace the Suck: How to Develop the Skills You Need to Succeed (Even If You’re Not Very Good). At the risk of oversimplifying, the article argues each of us “suck” at attaining our life-goals, but that we can have what we’re after if we learn to accept that success is born of repeated failures and setbacks.
On the whole, the article is well written and replete with good advice on reaching our goals. As such, I don’t want to come off as if I’m being critical of the piece but—the truth is—as I was reading it my thoughts kept drifting to the mindless futility of reaching our goals. Perhaps it’s because I’m a dreary conservative. Perhaps it’s because overly emphatic generalizations don’t resonate with my personality type. Or perhaps it’s because I had also finished reading an insufferably positive motivational speakers’ book the same week. Whatever the reason, my mind began to wander past the question of whether I could achieve my dreams and over to what happens when we’re no longer capable of dreaming.
Our society is obsessed with success, winning, reaching our goals, being our all, “arriving”, self-help, and self-actualization. Trump promised his supporters we’d be winning so much they’d get tired of winning. We love winning. Shelves are dedicated to self-help books in bookstores and there’s no end to podcasts offering advice on how to get rich, be successful, and reach whatever goal you have in mind.
What Does Success Mean to Me?
Now, the point of this post isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t set goals or that self-help is never worth the effort; the point is that we are marinated in a culture that believes, more and more, that success represents the purpose of our existence. What’s more, because these goals are self-determined, it isn’t much of a leap to believe that each of us, as individuals, have within ourselves the power to create our custom-built purpose-driven-life.
When we don’t reach our goals—when we’re unsuccessful—life is dreadful and void of meaning. We envy those who seem to be ahead of the game, who are a success at anything they endeavor to do. If only we could attain success we will have “arrived” somehow. Then—then!—life will be worth the living. Then we will know what it means to be our true selves because are true selves are surely a success at whatever it is we believe we need to be successful in.
For some, success is the new salvation. It may be an elusive dream to some, but if we can hone our skills just so, if we can adjust our attitude here or there, if we can work at it bit by bit, IT will be ours. But what is “it”? Are we only reaching for our goals, or are we reaching for something more? Such as the notion that somehow happiness or purpose or some spiritual actuality is lurking behind the door to success? Is success an endpoint in some finite endeavor or is it the god we worship?
This mindset may come upon us quite unawares. And a people who are fed a steady diet of surface-level spiritualism—spiritualism of the sort that promises to help us achieve our desires but certainly isn’t something people would willingly die for—are ripe for a new god to worship. And what closer god could there ever be than the worship of the self and the promise of self-actualization?
Failure is temporary. If it manages to truly set us back or keep us from our goals that’s only because something or someone—God? The lifeforce? The Universe?—has set in motion something even better for us than we had imagined. Death, if it enters our minds at all, is some distant threat that won’t come knocking until after a long life of success and a solid legacy that will ensure our life’s impact is felt for generations to come.
King Solomon Was a Terrible Motivational Speaker
Even if this were true—and, sadly, for most of us it will not be true—would that actually imbue our life with richness and meaning? If only there were someone who experienced the pinnacle of a successful life who could speak to us…
“Vanity of vanities,” begins the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
While it is debated whether Ecclesiastes was actually written by Solomon, King of Israel, the lesson remains: we are invited to look through the eyes of a man who had riches and power and wisdom beyond anyone else of his day. Whatever his heart desired, it was his. Whatever ambition or goal he set his mind to would come to fruition. The wonders he built and the wisdom he possessed gained him international fame. And what did this man who “had it all” have to say about his life?
“The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, ‘As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise?’ Then I said in my heart, ‘that this also is vanity. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.’”
“Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? Yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.”
Wow, that’s…uh…dreary. This is hardly the sort of message one would expect to glean from a self-help book or hear from a motivational speaker. What would cause someone with such immense wisdom that rulers of foreign nations would travel great distances to seek his advice to settle on such a dark and pessimistic view of life?
The text of Ecclesiastical tells the story of one who has reached the highest mountaintop of success anyone could achieve. He had self-actualized in ever possible sense and found that no matter how much success he could amass, it never filled the longing of his soul. His successes, he understood, were temporal. He longed for something eternal.
Admittedly, I have a hard time relating to Solomon. I haven’t any idea what it must be like to achieve the things he achieved; I’ll just have to take his word for it. What I do know is that, even if there is no ultimate joy to be found in our successes, failures are still painful. A life of untapped potential—one where we are constantly reminded of the painful reality that we have not achieved all that we could have achieved—is of no comfort either.
Leaf by Niggle
Years ago, I was in a conversation with a friend, bemoaning the fact that there was simply never enough time to do everything one ought to do. If I were to get adequate sleep, not neglect to exercise, pursue a relationship, pour myself into playing the piano and banjo, advance in my profession, worship my God, and do a litany of other worthwhile things it would be impossible to squeeze them all into the twenty-four hours allotted to me each day. In order to reach for some things, I had to let other things go.
And, worse of all, it seemed that often I was made to let go of things not because I wanted to, but because of some outside interference. I wanted to take care of myself with plenty of sleep and exercise? As a young professional in public accounting seeking my CPA license there were simply too many demands made each day for me to make it work. I wanted to pursue a relationship? So much time and energy could be invested in one person, only to find that it was a dead end all along. I took some time off work to devote myself to some personal goals? I spent all of that time recovering from the flu or, worse still, giving into laziness and apathy.
My friend suggested my concerns sounded a lot like those of a fictitious character named Niggle in one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s short stories. After reading the story for myself, I think he was on to something. In the story Leaf by Niggle we are introduced to the character named Niggle, a mediocre and unappreciated painter, who was resolved to paint his masterpiece before he was made to take a long journey (symbolizing death). He had in mind to paint a tree, and he had some sense of what it ought to look like.
But as the story progresses, Niggle is beset with problem after problem that interrupt him from his work. Much of his interruptions come from his neighbor Parish, who is in constant need of help. After a series of unfortunate events Niggle is heartbroken that he must leave on his journey, knowing that the tree will never be completed. His masterpiece, his purpose, his goal, his idea of success is left uncompleted and ready to be torn apart by people who will never understand how much of Niggle went into that painting.
Niggle is taken to some distant, gloomy country. His past has become a distant memory and each day rolls forward as if in an infinite prison of meaninglessness. Then one day, Niggle is permitted to leave his desolate surroundings and, while riding a bike through the countryside, spots something astonishing in the distance:
“Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.
‘It’s a gift!’ He said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.
He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful—and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style—were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.
The birds were building in the Tree. Astonishing birds: how they sang! They were mating, hatching, growing wings, and flying away singing into the Forest, even while he looked at them. For now he saw that the Forest was there too, opening out on either side, and marching away into the distance. The Mountains were glimmering far away.”
The story continues with Niggle later being joined by his old neighbor Parish. They begin to work together, making the countryside around them even more beautiful and enchanting than before. Then one day, they are approached by someone who looks to be from this foreign land:
“‘Are you a guide?’ he asked. ‘Could you tell me the name of this country?’
‘Don’t you know?’ said the man. ‘It is Niggle’s Country. It is Niggle’s Picture, or most of it: a little of it is Parish’s Garden.’
‘Niggle’s Picture!’ said Parish in astonishment. ‘Did you think of all this, Niggle? I never knew you were so clever. Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘He tried to tell you long ago,’ said the man; ‘but you would not look. He had only got canvas and paint in those days, and you wanted to mend your roof with them. This is what you and your wife used to call Niggle’s Nonsense, or That Daubing.’
‘But it did not look like this then, not real,’ said Parish.
‘No, it was only a glimpse then,’ said the man; ‘but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worth while to try.’”
Turning Failure into Something Real
The story of Niggle is, of course, an allegory. He we see a man who has failed to complete his masterpiece, though we know full well that, even if he had, it would not be appreciated by his thoughtless neighbors who believed it all to be nonsense. Yet somehow Niggle’s failure is transformed into something—how did Parish put it?—something real. At best, one could have caught a glimpse of Niggle’s handiwork but now the completed essence of the thing was so strong that the painting had become reality.
That novel you never finished writing; that broken relationship that never mended; that loved one who died far too young; that thing you never got a chance to do or place you never had the opportunity to visit; the ways in which you never truly expressed yourself, what if they were still out there? What if somehow, somewhere there existed the fulfillment of those longings that success could never give? What if even your failures were made into something beautiful and true?
British philosopher Roger Scruton observed in his book, How to be a Conservative:
“The loss of religion makes real loss more difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable…The Western response to loss is not to turn your back on the world. It is to bear each loss as a loss. The Christian religion enables us to do this, not because it promises to offset our losses with some compensating gain, but because it sees them as sacrifices. That which is lost is thereby consecrated to something higher than itself.”
The faith of our ancestors is superior to the rising faith of self-actualization, because it refocused them on something beyond themselves. What’s more, it even refocused them on something beyond others. It is much healthier to focus on loved ones or some grand pursuit, but, ultimately, all of that will come to naught. If we put our hopes in things that are finite our joy and sense of purpose will be finite. Only something or someone Infinite can sustain our hope forever.
“There has been a decline in the belief in an afterlife in whatever form—the belief that, somehow or other, the ‘unfairness’ of this life in this world is somewhere remedied and that accounts are made even,” wrote Irving Kristol in his book Neoconservatism, “As more and more people cease to believe any such thing, they demand that the injustice and unfairness of life be coped with here and now.” What if the faith of our ancestors that taught life everlasting is awaiting us after death wasn’t an antiquated superstition that we’ve evolved out of, but the very glue that held people together when everything else around them looked meaningless in an eternal sense?
The gloomy Book of Ecclesiastes ends with this admonition:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”
I once thought that King Solomon’s conclusion was rather lackluster and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Having persuaded me that all of life is vanity, how is it any comfort to admonish me to just do my duty to God? And what does that have to do with the vanity of life anyhow? It’s like he was saying life sucks, but don’t forget to vote on election day.
But I now see that looking to God not only provides hope beyond the very problem of the vanities of life, it is the only answer that ever could.