On failing and losing

Things go wrong when you try new stuff. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately. It’s made me aware of a conceptual distinction I hadn’t really ticked on before.

We make a serious category mistake when we use the verbs ‘lose’ and ‘fail’ indifferently.

Loss marks a dissipation of substance. What I had, I no longer have. Maybe someone else does? Or it might have simply disappeared. All things solid vanish into thin air.

Failure is a return to the original chaos. It’s a stumble, and a fall to the earth. I resolved on a course of action, but the result was not what I projected. Gravity triumphs over shape.

‘I lost’ implies scarcity. There was only so much substance around. Through my negligence, weakness, or hesitation, I let someone else grab it all. Now, there is no longer anything for me. I must wait for another opportunity.

‘I failed’ implies abundance. I chose one course of action among infinite options. I am not satisfied with the results. I stopped, and am now back to a state of maximal density. I must wait for momentum to get out of stasis.

Those words define two versions of the blank slate. Loss offers open space to dance around freely. Failure offers fertile clay to play with and mould. Loss is about ownership. I get my substance from the outside. I am what I have. Fail is about action. I get my substance from the inside. I am what I do.

The parallel stops here, however. The nouns present an interesting contrast. If I lose, I’m a loser: someone incapable of holding to substance. I only become a failure by failing someone else – including my own past self. I’m a failure when I am no longer part of anybody’s course of action. Everyone has given up on me, even myself, and I remain stuck.

Stating ‘I failed’, therefore, is a way to regain agency. It shifts my relationship to failure. By merely saying it, I am no longer a failure – only my project, my actions, my past self are. With this distance, momentum returns, and the possibility to try a different course. ‘I failed’ is a celebration of life.

‘It failed’ is a gift to the world. This is what science and experiments are all about: see not what worked, but what failed. I only know that ‘y’ is a better path than ‘x’ by comparison. Those who never failed have nothing to teach.   

How, then, do we create environments, where people are encourage to say ‘I failed’? And by doing so, regain dignity and agency? Why are we so reluctant to fail?

Maybe we’re afraid of the real and its chaotic possibilities. Pure shapelessness is the stuff of horror. Or maybe we’re afraid of our peers. For with cultures that celebrate failure comes the risk of a supporter, peer or colleague stating of my project – it failed – and regain their sense of agency by making me their failure, and pushing me back into chaos.

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