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.