I saw a video some time back, that interestingly, traced the evolution of how failure has been viewed in history, over years and over continents. The video helped to shape this article, in which I clearly question the desperate need for success. That Incy Wincy spider may have found the need to climb the wall a hundred times to tell us that try, try and try until you succeed. But what if even after a million attempts you fail to set foot on the moon? What if success evades you for life? What if…? Does it really mean that life is not worth living? Why should we feel the need to reach the finishing line first, everytime or rather reach it at all?
Milton had much reason when he said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
And here is my take on it, inspired by History source: http://tinyurl.com/o28mut7
It was the year 1995. I failed an ‘extremely’ tiny, teeny-weeny, inconsequential, minute, minuscule, infinitesimal Mathematics exam. But the worthlessness of that failure did not seem dwarfish to me at that point of time. It was like drowning in the ocean with huge boulders chained to my feet. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to resurrect. No, I wasn’t. What had happened was catastrophic- or that is how it seemed back then! Déjá vu anyone?
Well, more than twenty years later, I am still alive and kicking! I am sure, so are you. And no, I haven’t had any major success stories thereafter. So yes, failure is inevitable. It has to happen. It will happen. The graph will go up and then down before it goes up again or it may not go up again at all! So, what?
Literature on failure is immense. Failure quotes are one of the most searched quotations on the internet. Seven out of ten times we land up sending people poems, essays or one-liners on failure and how to overcome it. And here, I’m writing another one to add to your list! The world is fixed to this idea of failure. The way failure has been viewed by the world has a very fascinating history. In fact, the way success is viewed today, is a sad reflection of how a story has been passed on to us over centuries and how we have made it a dogma today.
In the year 429 BC the famous play ‘Oedipus Rex’ by Sophocles was performed for the first time in Athens. It is the story of an honorable and capable man who just about messes up things for himself in a big, big way. The interesting part is that even as the play ended, the audience refused to leave the theatre thinking of Oedipus as a loser! The Greeks believed and time and again tried to impose this message that not very nice things can happen to the nicest of people and therefore sympathy and kindness in understanding others is a must. On all their important occasions they came up with this idea of failure again and again and how it is absolutely human to go through this ‘tragedy’.
The Greeks also loved the story of the Spartan army. In this a small contingent of warriors stood up to a larger Persian army and fought until the last man. The Spartans, of course, lost but the bigger message conveyed was that you can lose and still be good!
Move to Rome. The year is 46 AD. Julius Caesar was once again triumphant against his enemies and his success was celebrated on the streets of Rome. The Romans always paid great attention to success. They believed that success is all that counts. And by success they meant money, fame and military glory. Naturally, this led to a lot of anxiety about failure.
From Rome to Germany. It was the year 9 AD. Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman General killed himself for having lost three Roman legions when ambushed by Germanic tribes. He had made strategic errors in the deployment of his troops and choosing death on failing was considered natural. Because failure was supposedly so shameful that one couldn’t do otherwise.
The Sermon on the Mount- Galilee, 30 AD. Jesus Christ is said to have told his followers, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ In simple language, the unsuccessful are in a way more successful than the successful in the eyes of God. The reason being that their life is without arrogance and it is dependent on God. Christianity was the complete anti-theses of Rome. It gave importance to poverty, ignorance, obscurity and weakness vis-à-vis the ideals of success propagated by the Romans. Simply put, Christianity said that committing suicide when failed is not the answer. In fact, failure is a sign of being blessed!
India, 5 BC- We are all aware of the story of our very own Indian Prince, Siddhartha who went on to be remembered as Gautama Buddha. Buddha gave us the philosophy of renunciation. He said clearly that ultimately all human beings are unhappy and that the Roman ideals of wealth, fame and military power can only lead to temporary happiness. However, in the modern world the Buddhist philosophy of success lying in acquisition of minimum, doesn’t really go down well with most world philosophies.
Paris, 1799 AD- Napoleon Bonaparte started a new social order. It was called ‘Meritocracy’. He said that success would no longer be inherited by the norms of aristocracy but would be marked by “carriére ouverte aux talents” or “careers opened to the talented” and France acquired a new system based on merit. Definitely, success then became more fair and just but it also meant that failure began to be viewed differently, but was still given more importance than it actually deserved.
Again, in Paris, 1863 AD- The French Government started its Annual Artistic Salon- an official art exhibition which was arguably the greatest art event in the Western world. The jury that year happened to be extremely conservative and rejected two-thirds of the paintings presented. The rejected artists protested. The Emperor Napoleon III allowed the artists to set up their own rival exhibition. Surprisingly, the paintings by these set of unofficial artists were appreciated far more than the ones by the official artists and people realized that these unofficial painters were the real geniuses!!
This led to a new philosophy about success in the 19th and 20th Century Art World. It said that the Genius is likely to be rejected at first by a foolish and blinded world and eventually is the real winner. This is what happened to John Keats, Vincent Van Gogh, J K Rowling and Steve Jobs. Real successes may sometimes have to wait longer, maybe after their death, to be truly recognized.
New York, 1987 AD- The Forbes magazine came out with its first edition featuring the list of the richest people on planet earth. The richest man was Yoshiaki Tsutsumi of Japan. The magazine was a grand success and continues to rule even today. It reaffirmed the American idea that he who is the richest is also the most successful.
The irony was that just two weeks after the inaugural issue of The Forbes came out, the world stock markets collapsed. Needless to say, the very notion of linking success to money became questionable.
New York, 2011- A group of protestors question the American ideas of success saying that it is unfair to equate success with monetary benefits as America’s wealth is necessarily held by only one percent of the population and real success must be linked to human virtues. But capitalism takes over very soon and once again it is success equals money and fame!
The world has largely been very unfair to the idea of failure all through history. No wonder we have been very critical of ourselves whenever we have faced failure. All in all, there is great celebration and rejoicing every time there is a success story to narrate but a big, big silence over failure. This has percolated down to generations and the pressures of the times make it hard for us to face a downfall.
What the world must remember is that falling is inevitable. It must happen. And it is natural and human. In the past, there was religion and there were the arts to deal with the stresses of failure. Today, there is more of science, logic and technology. There is less of art and culture. Hence the very idea that failure could be good has entirely disappeared. Yes, there are a number of quotations but they are merely limited to being there. A deeper understanding of rising and falling has simply vanished. There is no more merit in uniqueness. We just have this desire to be doppelgangers of success.
Before I wind up this piece, a little observation.
One, it is okay to fail.
Two, it is even more important to know that the narrative of success which has been told to you by the world (Forbes and the Romans and Americans) may not necessarily follow failure. That failure may follow failure and that it is perfectly fine.
Three, it is also okay not to have a success story. You can still continue to live a peaceful and happy life!
[ This article first appeared in the November issue of Keekli Newspaper]