By Laurie Grady (HS English & Philosophy Teacher, Haverford Senior High School, PA)

The concept of failure is so vast, so diverse, and so widespread, that it is impossible to examine comprehensively. Even within a limited scope, the abstruse and often formidable subject is one that most folks would like to avoid talking about–let alone experiencing.

I believe philosophy can help. 

Canonical philosophers have confronted failure in various ways. Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu tried to rationalize failure by equating it with success. He seemed to believe that success was just as precarious as failure: “Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky. But when you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance.” This makes us wonder: which is more treacherous–success or failure?

Contemporary tech companies often endorse a similar philosophy. Silicon Valley often encourages its employees to fail hard, fail often, and fail better. Leadership coaching programs argue that failure can be a potential opportunity. Paradoxically, success can breed complacency whereas failure can expose imperfections, leading to more successes. In short, the absence of failure may also lead to the absence of growth,–hencethe treachery of success. 

Acknowledging the complacency of success and the benefits of failure can be a productive strategy. But in our fast-paced, digitally connected world that is often tied to capitalistic ideals, “fail better” mantras are hardly helpful because the world is showing us a different narrative–that failure can be permanent and often irredeemable. Just look at the long list of canceled celebrities and politicians; it’s no wonder that fear of failure debilitates adults and children alike. 

Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal around the world. The belief that merit–often synonymous with “goodness” or “worthiness”–rather than luck, determines success or failure, becomes problematic when an individual in such a society is consistently met with failure; society will likely deem such an individual as an unworthy loser, and worse, that person will see themselves as such. Yet talent and the capacity for determined effort–sometimes called ‘grit’–often depend a great deal on one’s privilege. 

Additionally, those same Big Tech companies that espouse a “fail hard, fail better” philosophy in an effort to produce more innovative (and profitable) endeavors, are the very monoliths that are developing products that force the rest of us to compare our own successes and failures to the appearance of others’ successes and failures. In a world where everyone can feign success, experiencing failure is hard to accept. 

My goal is not necessarily to criticize contemporary technological societies but to challenge the spiritual ramifications of measuring success and failure within these systems. When we focus more on the basic needs that capitalism can offer and we measure success by our capital gains only, we often will unavoidably feel like we have failed, and worse, we see ourselves as failures. 

In other words, if we want to live a good life–one where our “two feet [are] on the ground,” free from the fear of failure, we need to rethink how we measure success in the first place. 

Philosophical schools such as Taoism, Buddhism, Cynicism, and Stoicism, as well as literature and drama can all be great tools to explore thoughts on failure. Tragedies in particular were and are written so that we can clearly see that good people–Antigone, King Lear, Jay Gatsby–can fail and still be “good” or virtuous, valuable, and admirable. 

Many texts can offer possible remedies to the uncomfortable feeling of failure. But even most tragedies are more concerned with the outcome of the struggle rather than on the nature of the struggle. What’s more, ultimately, we are bystanders witnessing others’ downfalls, not our own. 

These limitations lead me to think that a more practical and proactive approach can be very helpful when dealing with failure. In Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, Kieran Setiya, borrowing from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, argues that we should concern ourselves more with atelic activities rather than telic desires. 

Telos in Greek means purpose, or goal. Telic activities can vary from the extremely ambitious, like making it to the olympics, writing a novel, or becoming a CEO, to more common ones like making a sports team, writing an essay, or getting a raise at work. 

The problem with telic endeavors, according to Aristotle and thoughtfully applied by Setiya, is that they have a final destination. If you don’t get there, you have objectively failed. But even if you do get there, your pleasure in succeeding is very short-lived. Setiya says that “satisfaction is always in the future or the past.”

Instead, Setiya argues that we should strive for atelic activities, where the pursuit’s significance is in the process or experience instead of the end accomplishment or goal. We may find more success, or at least satisfaction, in the processes that we are constantly engaged in, such as listening to music, taking a walk with no real end-point, or sitting on the beach watching the ocean. 

And even when there is a clear end goal–to serve a meal, to build a table, to earn a PhD–we should be just as concerned with the process of the cooking, the building, and the engaging with content as we are with the end-goals.

Setiya uses the movie Groundhog Day as a great example of this way of thinking. Phil Connors, a cynical and egotistical weather man gets stuck reliving the same day over and over again. At first, he uses this unfortunate loop to try to win over a woman. Once he fails, again and again, he gives up the telic goal and begins engaging in atelic activities such as learning an instrument, a new language, and how to create ice sculptures. With no reason to believe he’ll ever become unstuck from the loop, Phil leans into the joy of the process with no real terminal end point. He becomes more happy, relaxed, caring, friendly, and successful. 

If we wanted to use this philosophy to instruct children to reframe their understanding of failure, perhaps we help them to be more sensitive to the processes that they are undertaking rather than the terminal goal of success. As nice as it is to cross things off a checklist, when we’re consumed by telic activities–by always pursuing outcomes–we’re missing out on the flow and transience of being. We are always in the future or the past and seldom in the present. 

Perhaps this is why philosophy is so appealing to children (and adults) in the first place. Philosophy itself–an atelic process, always in flux, never quite complete or finished– is an activity that is captivating and rewarding albeit sometimes mystifying and precarious.

I like to think that leaning into the vulnerability of our atelic delights, including our philosophical pursuits, and capturing such memories is a mark of a more successful life rather than a benchmark of a single goal. 

How can we possibly be failures if we are in the process of living a successful life? 

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Meghan MacConnell

Love how this thinking could be used to help our most anxious students!