There are many different ways to fail. We may set out with a goal in mind, but never reach that goal. Or we may never take the first step. We might even, and this is probably the most painful failure, reach our initial goal, and realise when we get there that it was not what we wanted.
The Greeks knew that you cannot judge a person’s life before it comes to an end. This is particularly true for our failures. We live in the present, and only know the consequences of our actions retrospectively. For that very reason, we do not experience all failure the same way.
Type 1: we know what we’re after, we’re trying to get there, the world resists, it is difficult, and the more we progress, the more tired we get, the more inadequate we feel. This is salient, sharply painful.
Type 2: we know what we’re after, we’re watching TV, we’re in the armchair, we’re doing something else, we’re getting capital first, getting the kids through schools first, learning the skills first, we’ll get to it later. This is pleasant, quite – there is more time, and the goal hasn’t moved. This is deceptively comfortable.
Type 3: we’re moving ahead, making progress, advancing. The world is with us, and so, surely, we made the right choice, we picked a winner. We smile and the world smiles with us. We know what we want, and we’re getting it. Unless we were to pause and reflect – but probably we don’t: instead, we continue the smoothie regime and daily mindfulness to remain in flow. This is uplifting, exhilarating, healthy.
Over the years, there is one mystery that has remained with me: how people often fail to share the right information, and enough of it, spontaneously.
I jotted down this anecdote from a while back, and found it when going through my papers the other day. I was travelling through China then, and a friend was going to pick me up at Tianjin station. ‘There’s a nice café called Cafe Bene, wait for me there and I’ll come get you’. Since no more information came, I expected this to be sufficient. As it happens, when I came out of the Beijing train, I realized that Tianjin station has two main exits, with a maze of metro tunnels and underground squares. There is no map prominently saying ‘Café Bene’. My Chinese was not quite sufficient to Baidu things. I looked, I walked, I asked around, lugging my 20+ kilos of luggage. Then I gave up, settled in a KFC, and sent my friend a photograph, letting him come find me. Then I wrote an angry note on my computer, waiting for him.
The feelings of anger have waned since, but it remains a mystery, to this day, why he would not think of giving me more information. My friend is neither stupid nor uncaring, yet to me, on this occasion, failed in his attempt at hospitality, through lack of communicative foresight.
As an educator, this is something I understand keenly. The first thing I learned, in my first month of teaching, is that I should not expect my students to understand something just because I explained it to them. Over twenty years of teaching, this is one thing I learned: people will struggle to grasp new concepts, new knowledge is difficult to share. As an educator, I take it as my role and responsibility for others to learn and understand. Whenever a message is not received, it is always my fault: I should have been clearer.
Still, I fail, and often. It is difficult to determine the shape of another person’s ignorance or incomprehension. Knowledge is salient, and we can build on what is there. Ignorance is a desert full of quicksands – dry, with an ever-present risk of drowning. We forget this, all the time. Relationships die for this reason. This, in fact, may be one of the largest sources of waste in our world: that no matter how good our intentions may be, we failed to measure the depths of others’ ignorance, and failed for this reason.
The same, of course, applies to our own ignorance. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’, as the saying goes. And so, we beat ourselves up for all our missteps: how could I be so dumb as not to foresee the consequences?
I was speaking to my friend and colleague Kyran the other day. We’re trying to build a green energy retail startup, with a view to decarbonize our electricity grid. It is difficult. Early moments are delicate. And as we try to build up everything from scratch, scrambling for funds in the midst of a pandemic, I have a keen sense of failure. The goal is very clear – reduce greenhouse gas emissions, focus on energy, work on the structures of the grid, do this through an energy retail startup rather than political action. We’re clearly on the path – how far exactly is unsure. The world is in the way.
Therefore, I tremble, hesitate, experience doubts and frustration. Not always, but often. There are the good days, the narrative comes together, interest from an investor, new potential partnerships. There are the bad days: everything blurs, no traction, and a great sense of solitude. I look around, and wonder: am I doing it all wrong? I’m generally competent, and this is incredibly difficult: how come it is so hard?
I shake myself up: it’s hard because it’s hard. But is this sense of struggle a definite sign I’m on the right path? It might also not be. Or I may be simply too weak to succeed: not wise enough, not strong enough. The world may be stronger than me. And if that was the case, could I say that I bravely died trying? Or that I foolishly took on more than I could handle? In the midst of it, there is no way to know. This is what I find most difficult, right now.
Easter is the holiest festival of Christianity. It is full of paradoxes. For now, one resonates with me. If we truly believe that Jesus is the son of God, then he could easily step down from the cross, or send for hosts of angels to save him. Yet he doesn’t. Why?
A few years ago, I was working from Hub Melbourne, a co-working space for socially minded innovators. At some stage, I proposed organizing a ‘failure night’: inviting people to share where they failed, and reflect on it. This took the form of a dinner, ten people around a table. The first started, ‘well, in retrospect, my failure led to success.’ And all, in turn, proceeded with the same narrative: there was no such thing as failure, just a reframe.
It was too fast, I thought – with a touch of anger. Why can you not simply state: ‘I was trying to do that, and I failed.’ For we do have goals, and we try to reach them, and sometimes, we don’t get there. It comes with sadness, and a sense of loss. Failure involves emotional labour, mourning, and acceptance.
Then – but only then – can it lead to new knowledge. Jesus on the cross reveals something about the world: and there is comfort in that. Not simply that things won’t always get your way, but that you should treat success in the world with indifference.
Our intelligence has a comic quality. it solves problems, it knows how to twirl and manipulate appearances. It hustles, and gets its way. Joy comes with it. This is the reframe that says: my failure was a success, because I learned from it, and now I think of it as a success. But it has a limit: it is a means to an end, it will not reveal what matters. It is, therefore, lowlier that our tragic capacity to firmly decide: this is what I want, and I will hold on, even in the face of certain death. Comedy triumphs, tragedy fails. Comedy teaches how to get what you want, but only tragedy – might – reveal what you want.
And no matter how late, no matter how close, is it not better to clearly see the object of your deepest desire, rather than joyfully twirl among a series of ghosts and mirrors?
The COVID-19 crisis presents a great challenge to the utilitarian thinker. What should we try and achieve? What does success look like, what is failure? Whether it’s about avoiding death or protecting human well-being: that is not where the problem is, I don’t think so. Rather, it’s a time horizon issue. Should we focus on saving lives – or human well-being – considering only next week, next month, next year, or looking further still into the future?
Major decisions are taken, in a state of urgency, with flow on consequences that we cannot foresee. We do not even know for sure how to determine whether any measure is ‘successful’: we have not really taken the time to get together, and decide what success would look like. Nor is there a forum for us to do that, really.
Is anything working, or failing? We simply don’t know: we stumble in the dark. And yet, still we judge.