Successfully failing

Dear Future Self,

I’m writing to you to ask about success and failure. It seems to me that many people spend a great deal of time and energy—sometimes their entire lives—striving to succeed at something or other, and giving everything they can to avoid failure. Who can blame them really: failure is about as sexy as Leprosy in modern Western culture. And yet, there are a few rare individuals to whom success and failure are meaningless: they have reached a Zen-like state where neither is important; they have transcended them. What do they know that I don’t? And how the hell does one even begin to get there?

When I fail at something I really care about it can feel like a mini-death: a time of mourning for the loss of something that never quite realised its potential in this world. And even though this mini-death is really only an ego-wound, it can be painful and sad. Sometimes failure makes me ashamed—if only I’d tried harder, been better.

I think the need to succeed is one of the strongest motivating forces in life­, and yet how often do I actually ask myself why I am trying so hard to succeed? What is this need based on? What does anyone actually ‘get out’ of succeeding? I suppose they may get a rush of energy, a sense of accomplishment for reaching a goal they set out to achieve, or they may feel vindicated because others told them it wasn’t possible—like they reached the top of the mountain, despite all the odds. Hell, success may even temporarily make you feel like a celebrity and make you want to act like one. This could explain a few things actually, like the existence of pink stretch-Hummers, reality TV, the Gold Coast.

But why does it matter so much that we succeed? My instincts tell me that a large part of it is the need to be loved. I mean, what better way to artificially feel loved than to succeed at something? After all, the feeling of being loved and the feeling of admiration that comes from being successful can feel pretty similar. So what I’m saying is, when I’m successful at something, I fulfill—temporarily—the need to be loved, because I finally feel like I’m good enough to be loved. Soon after though, I realise this love is empty and I need something else to fill the hole.

For quite a while now, Meg and I have been trying to have children. I suppose you must know how all that turns out, Future Self. It’s hard not knowing. It’s also strange to feel like you can’t do something that seems so simple, so natural—something that people all over the world do every day. I’m not a stranger to failure and the feelings that come with it, but I’m realising that some failures can feel bigger than others: like there are failures, and then there are failures. Failing to, for example, score any points in my weekly basketball game and replaying all my mistakes over and over in my head is one thing, but not being able to give my love the thing she wants more than anything in this world is another. I know I’m not some demigod that can just create children at will—bolts of lightning shooting from my fingertips—but it doesn’t stop me wishing I could do something. This specific failure has brought with it a deep, profound sense of failure that has permeated every area of my life. It hasn’t just made me feel like I am failing at something, but more like I’ve gone a step further and embodied the notion: that I’ve become a failure.

In moments of failure what I often want more than anything is to be loved, yet the sad reality is that I don’t even like myself. (And in these moments I almost understand why anyone would want to go on ‘Snog Marry Avoid?’). But it’s ok, I know this can change—I’m beginning to see paradoxes in success and failure and, instead of taking them as a sign to back away, I’m taking them as a sign to look closer.

Typically, a ‘success’ calls for celebration and self-congratulation, right? Whereas after a ‘failure’ people almost expect you to plunge into a pit of sadness and introspection. And yet, why is this so? Does it have to be this way? It seems to me that while life wouldn’t be much fun without celebrating successes, it would practically stand still without failures. If you never failed at anything, how would you ever learn anything about yourself? How would you ever grow? change? improve? overcome? Learn not to hate yourself?

I know that my failures can be painful, but when I look beyond that I see that a failure is also a gift. Sure, it wasn’t on my Christmas list, but just like some annoying relative who ignores what you really want and instead gives you something they want you to have—something you need—I keep ending up with these ‘gifts’. I didn’t recognise them at first because it seemed counterintuitive to associate pain and sadness with gifts. But I’m learning that gifts from the universe can come in the most unlikely packaging, and it’s up to me to recognise them. Once I’ve peeled off the wrapping paper and ripped open the box, and recovered from the initial shock that someone has given me what looks and smells like a steaming turd in a box, I’m learning that beyond the god-awful appearance and wretched stench there is something worthwhile: an opportunity. I see it now: failures give me an opportunity to learn something about myself, to grow. Failures are an opportunity to love myself—to love myself enough that successes and failures don’t mean anything anymore, that they don’t even exist. And then, at that point, everything is an opportunity. Nothing is either good or bad. (Although please don’t send me a turd in a box, that was just a joke, alright?)

Until then, Future Self, I believe that every failure is bringing me a step closer to a success, a step closer to you.

Yours forever in the here and now,

Former Self

4 Comments on “Successfully failing”

  1. Hi present Ross,

    Wonderful first letter from your former self to your future self. It made me smile, tear up and chortle. So good.

    Failure vs. success reminds me of one of my fave Michael Jordan quotes: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” And it ties in with your basketballness.

    I wish you (and Meg) every success because a world with more Hopes (see what I did there?) will be a better place.

    Love your new blog – can’t wait to read more.

    • Aww shucks, thank you Jade! I love that Michael Jordan quote – partly for its own merits, but yeah he is also my favourite all-time baller. I think my bro, Ray, put that quote on his Facebook sometime in 2012 and I remember thinking how powerful and awesome it was. Thanks for taking the time to write that, and your kind Hope-related words. Catch ya soon.

  2. Hey Ross,

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    I was always scared of going to uni because I didn’t think I would be able to do the work (I can see now that this was irrational). Anyway when I did finally start studying I kept the following words by Samuel Beckett on my wall to help me face my fear of failing and remind me that failure was actually a good thing….

    Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

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