When they look back over their life, many people feel a sense of failure: they never did write that play, meet “the one,” stay loyal to the mother of their child, or whatever it may be. Sometimes, the individual obsesses over one thing, like their failure to get into Oxford or make up with their father; for others, the sense of failure is a vague and indefinable feeling of wasted potential. Whatever its cause, the sense of failure must be confronted.
Subjective and Objective
Can you trust your judgement? For example, someone with low self-esteem will think himself a failure even if others do not, while someone with an inflated ego will consider himself a success even if his neighbors despise him.
People have a sense of failure. In other words, it is something they believe about themselves. We have all met talentless and obnoxious individuals who, objectively, have achieved nothing and yet consider their life a glorious success. On the other hand, you probably know someone loveable and kind, who worked hard and raised wonderful kids, and yet is consumed with self-loathing.
If you have a sense of failure, begin by asking yourself where it originated. Let’s take two hypothetical examples. A child raised by strict, religious parents, who set impossibly high moral standards, feels a constant sense of inadequacy and failure. Next door lives a girl who grows up under the shadow of a beautiful and talented sister.
Objectively, both may be immensely successful. The son of the religious parents grows into a loving father and man of principle, trusted and respected by everyone. But he feels a failure. He cannot reconcile himself to reality: that he is a “naked ape,” to use the zoologist Desmond Morris’ famous phrase, driven by lust and aggression. Considered objectively, he does very well to live a compassionate and principled life. By his parents’ standards, however, he is a sinner and a failure.
As for the girl raised with a brilliant sister, no matter what she does, she always feels second best. Again, looked at objectively her life is a success. She gets into a good college (but her sister goes to Harvard). She has friends (but her sister is the most popular kid in school). No matter what she does, her sister goes one better.
Of course, it could also be argued that while subjective measures are unreliable, there is no way of being truly objective either. Everyone defines success in their own way. For some, a successful life is a happy life, and no matter how rich or famous their friend may be, if she is unhappy they will consider her a failure. A glance through a few celebrity memoirs shows that fame and wealth do not always bring happiness. Indeed, for some they sharpen and intensify underlying problems.
For many, success is measured in material terms. The more money you make, the larger your house, the more expensive your car, the more successful you have been. For others, only status matters.
Comparing Yourself to Others
The single biggest danger is comparing yourself to others. Unfortunately, in an age of social media this is hard to avoid. It cannot be said too often that social media is not real life. The photos you see on Facebook are the highlights. If your old school friend takes his kids to see the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center, you won’t see photos of the row he had with his wife as they searched for a parking space, or the tantrum their daughter threw while they queued in McDonalds. Instead, they post pictures of everyone forcing a smile under the twinkling lights.
Whether on social media or face-to-face, people put a positive spin on their lives, exaggerating the good and minimizing the bad. Others are compulsive liars or outright fantasists. In any case, comparing yourself to others is absurd. Every individual is the product of a complex mix of genes, parenting, and early experiences. And this is largely beyond your control.
Obviously, you can change and grow in later life. But people do not all have the same start, and they are not equipped in the same way. Some are socially anxious, while others enjoy superhuman levels of confidence. It would be absurd for the first to compare his career in marketing or advertising with the second; the problem is not that he’s a loser but that he picked a career unsuited to his temperament.
And this is true even within families. A sensitive, introverted boy considers himself a failure for not being a hard-drinking womanizer. But that is because his father and uncle were like that, and in the tough, working-class environment in which he was raised, such behavior was admired.
Instead, your goal ought to be to fulfil your own nature. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that the purpose of life was to become what you were meant to be. He looked at the natural world and saw nothing but change. And this is so, he argued, because everything is seeking to reach its “telos,” – its goal or purpose. The telos of a puppy is to become a wolf, that of a seed to become a flower.
Human beings are more complicated. If the sensitive, introverted boy tries to be like his father, he will fail even if he succeeds. He may succeed in getting drunk and starting a fight, but he would be betraying his true nature. The worst kind of failure, the sort that truly haunts and torments people, is a failure of character – a sense of having done something cowardly and ignoble. That cuts you to the core. So make your goal more realistic: to know what is best in you and to seek to be what is best in you.
Of course, no matter what they do, some people continue to feel a failure. For example, John dreams of living the idyllic family life in the country. But he has an affair, his marriage disintegrates, and his children refuse to speak to him. Sarah is determined to escape the depressing ghetto in which she was born, but she gets into debt, strays into crime, and ends up back where she began, with no prospect of leaving.
Some develop a passion for just one thing and invest their all in it. So, for example, a girl loves literature and dreams of being a novelist. She studies creative writing and works furiously at her art. But everything she writes is rejected, often with harsh or cutting words. Decades pass, and the editors and publishers remain just as hostile, assuring her that she hasn’t the skill or talent and should try something else.
Unfortunately, life isn’t like a Hollywood film, and dreams often fail to come true. The wannabee novelist builds a happy marriage, raises healthy and loving children, and so on, but writing is everything, and so, when she finally admits that she is no novelist, she feels a failure. And the truth is she has failed.
Such examples can be multiplied endlessly. It is true that failure is subjective, that it depends on comparisons with others, that the wheel of fortune turns, etc. Nevertheless, thanks to old age, poor health, or the extreme circumstances of their failure, some have little prospect of changing things. For such people, life soon becomes a torment. Indeed, some live with the sense of failure night and day. For people like that, quitting Facebook or trying to be a little more objective simply isn’t enough.
In such circumstances, many escape into alcohol or drugs. But there are healthier forms of escape than these. For example, try reminding yourself what a brief and absurd thing your existence really is! In the introduction to A Brief History of Everything, Bill Bryson writes: “for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner…It’s an arrangement so specialized that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once…your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, don’t even know that you are there.”
Such reminders can be soothing. The British comedian Eddie Izzard once remarked that losing his mother to breast cancer when he was a child profoundly affected the way he handled success. Her death, he said, kept him grounded. It was an ever-present reminder of how fragile and fleeting the good times are, and that, while it is important to enjoy them, you should never be carried away.
You could start by combining mindfulness with immersion in nature. Through mindfulness, you learn to monitor your thoughts, to detach yourself and observe them. Once you do, you realize how repetitive, absurd and self-tormenting the majority of them are. And by immersing yourself in nature, you force the grasping, angry, bitter little ego to recognise its insignificance.
When you do go out into nature, practise mindfulness so your thoughts don’t overwhelm you, and be where you are, giving your full attention to the experience. For example, you could swim in the ocean, or lie in the grass on a clear summer’s night and look up at the stars. Remind yourself of Bryson’s words (“trillions of drifting atoms”) and give yourself fully to the experience. Soon, your failure to become a rock star will seem ridiculous!