Proud to Fail

A comment left by Elaina, the author of the PTSD Is Normal blog, started me thinking about the meaning of failure.

Those of us with histories of difficult upbringings and unstable adult lives often find that success eludes us. We fail to see projects through, or we choose directions that demand skills we lack, or we trust people who undermine our progress, or we collapse emotionally when facing intensified stress, or we turn away from opportunities out of fear. Achievement, at least as it is usually defined, gets impeded by our poor coping skills and high reactivity.

And yet, a common gambit to compensate for low self-esteem is to become an overachiever. I started out like that. You don’t go to major universities, earn stellar grades, get advanced degrees, and train as a sub-specialty surgeon unless you feel pretty driven to succeed. My attainments in younger years helped me feel better about myself, but they never penetrated to the inner core of my personality that was corrupted by the virus of self-hatred. I looked good on paper and never hesitated to let people know about my high-status profession, but it was all in service of counteracting deep feelings of worthlessness.

When neck disease made my overloaded operating schedule too demanding to continue, I rather precipitously abandoned my career. This rash decision came during a manic episode back before I knew myself capable of losing control in that way. So I didn’t recognize the warning signs. Rather than working patiently to solve the mismatch between my workload and spinal vulnerability (for instance by reducing to half-time), I just gave up on a career that had required ten years of medical training beyond college and graduate school. That decision led to many negative consequences, some of which continue to plague me.

In many ways, the recent acupuncture fiasco showed history repeating itself. I chose a career path that was obviously going to be very difficult for me. I listened to advice rather than my own heart. I trusted people who proved untrustworthy. My physical health deteriorated under stress. And I even made the decision to abandon the project while in a fit of mania (though now that the dust has settled I have no doubt about the correctness of that choice).

On the one hand, I could mine the acupuncture saga for tips on how to choose my goals more wisely. Or I could reassure my ego by seeing that in some ways the project was successful despite its failure in the business sense. For instance, many of my patients felt dramatically better after I’d treated them. And educating myself and setting up a practice taught me a great deal about healing, Chinese medicine, and Eastern philosophy, not to mention business realities and my own temperament.

But the most valuable outcome was my realizing that external circumstances are more or less irrelevant to internal progress. I do not need to prove my worth to the world at large; I only need to find value in myself. The highest goal in life, as I now see it, is to learn to feel satisfied and enriched by living no matter what happens. Failure, illness, pain, and grief are just as valuable to a soul as their opposites. A diet of only disappointment would certainly get tiresome, but the Self could be sustained by it if properly schooled. If it teaches us these attitudes, failure proves itself as valuable as success, and possibly more so.

The Buddha saw this truth long ago in speaking of the eight worldly winds: Praise/Blame, Gain/Loss, Fame/Shame, and Happiness/Despair. He saw that a person can rise beyond these dialectics and find peace of mind no matter the vagaries of Fate’s gales.

The edifying value of failure is perhaps a needed lesson in today’s success-obsessed world. Certainly, I feel much happier knowing that my life does not need validation from conventional sources. It can be experienced as meaningful even when it looks unfortunate from the outside. Knowing this, and seeing how my career catastrophes have taught me an invaluable lesson, I feel proud to have failed.


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Proud to Fail — 10 Comments

  1. Oh goodie, I want to join that club, the ‘proud to be a failure’ club! It sounds so much better than the vagueness that describes my present circumstances. Thanks for processing out loud, it inspires me to do some more processing of my own, to a certain extent. And then there are times where I am so tired of analyzing it all and I just want to say ‘it is what it is’ and pick up some hand sewing, or go for a walk and enjoy the parts of my life that I can still enjoy.

  2. Bravo! Bravo! Will- I am kind of speechless as well. Wow what an inspiring Blog today!! I suspect most of us with experience of painful and damaging mood/emotional upheavals and addictions become very familiar and maybe comfortable with self-hatred from all our failures. Self-hatred from perceived failure is tragically my psychic home! The only thing I am certain about today — when I am down, I trust that if you are well enough you will help and hold me up!– and I will certainly do the same for you. This is how we love — If we are both down at the same time, then we simply hold each other from falling further! I need to learn to be OK with not being OK! And letting my loved ones help and hold me up!
    You’re friendship and honest Blog inspirations help and hold me up!! Thanks my friend!!

  3. Dave–

    This feels like a rich topic. It’s similar to the Brokenness theme that came out after you suggested I read The Spirituality of Imperfection. It’s one thing to recognize when an endeavor has succeeded or failed, but entirely another when we judge ourselves as either successes or failures as a result. I no longer believe a person can be a failure, and this has seemed especially clear to me as I’ve processed the feelings and teachings that my sister’s life and death bring up. By realizing that she was a remarkable human being despite her chaotic life and minimal accomplishments (as defined conventionally), I realized the same can be said of everyone. That took a lot of pressure off myself and also helped me feel less judgmental toward others. And I suppose it shows how valuable she actually was, in that she taught me such a invaluable lesson.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, but especially thank you for being my friend.


  4. Wendy–

    Without doubt, analysis only takes us so far. We also need to quit generating words and ideas from time to time and simply experience life. Thanks for the reminder.


  5. Elaina–

    Well, thank you for getting me started thinking about what failure means. I needed to take a look at the subject in light of all that’s happened.



  6. We have succeeded beyond our wildest imagination every time we find ourself in any issue, event, or experience, that looks like failure, or is called failure by the world.
    How can the word “fail” even come into play when we connect with our soul? The world at large just doesn’t know what success really is.
    This was a heartfelt post, Will, and I enjoyed it. Thank you.

  7. Brenda–

    What I said above in response to Dave’s post seems to be the central point: we can fail to succeed to achieve a defined goal, but we can’t fail as people.

    I can fail to make a profit as an acupuncturist. I can fail to keep all my New Year’s Resolutions. I can fail to come to a complete stop at an intersection. But I can’t fail as a person.

    And anything we attempt teaches us something. For example, if I fail to stop completely and get a ticket, I might learn to be more careful in the future. In that case it’s not a failure but a lesson (this happened to me recently).

    And most importantly, as you point out, we cannot fail as souls. Thanks for the comment and the nice extensions to the topic.