The failure of success

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Type the word fail into YouTube, and you will be treated to a plethora of videos in which some poor unfortunate gets hurt or humiliated by doing something that goes horribly wrong. Through either their own stupidity/carelessness or some force outside their control, you can watch somebody get injured or at least humiliated, for your own entertainment.  Some of them are genuinely funny.  Others have clearly led to severe injury, unemployment, and possibly death (and even those can raise a giggle if you’re in the right mood).

This sort of or short term failure has become a form of entertainment, and for the most part, it’s harmless.  Even if the outcome of the ‘fail’ in question was serious, it’s already happened, so if someone can get a laugh out of it, I suppose there is no harm done.  In fact, I believe that we should all carry something like a donor card which says ‘I would like to give someone a laugh after my death’.  They’ll take your kidneys and your corneas so why not take the piss as well?

It’s true.  Short term failure can be outrageously funny.  Long term failure; not so much.  We don’t tend to get so much joy out of watching people whose life choices have led them to poverty, homelessness, disease, and squalor.  When did you last look at a homeless guy and laugh at the ill-advised choices he made to get himself that way?  Admittedly, if there is a video of him falling downstairs or walking into a lamppost, then that’s something else, but his overall situation is no laughing matter. 

Having said that, he provides an invaluable service; a service which if he was paid for delivering would immediately put him out of work.

He reminds us of the price of failure.

I have been fortunate enough to see a good chunk of the world, and without question, the places in which the cost of failure is the highest are the places in which we find the most motivated and industrious people.

Walk through any city in Vietnam, and not only will you see hundreds of people hawking pop up greetings cards and scorpions on sticks, you will also see people offering to shine your shoes with a rag or fix them with a tube of cheap glue.  It’s all they have with which to make a living, but rather than piss and moan about it, they get on and do it.  You see a lot of this in Asia, but at the same time, you will also find some of the most motivated students, workers, and small business owners on the planet.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  People work hard because they know that there are consequences for slacking.

Before I go on, I think it’s important that I’m clear here.  I am not suggesting for a moment that everyone who is down on their luck is there as a result of laziness.  I am aware that there are all sorts of misfortunes which can befall an individual and land them up Shit Creek without a paddle.  It’s unjust, unfair, and it sucks.  This is not my point though.

Eastern and Central Europe have a similar situation.  Either you do well, or life will become intolerable.  Again, you will see families scrimp and save to ensure that their children get the best possible opportunity to make a successful life for themselves, and what’s more, the kids understand and appreciate it.  It’s harsh, but it works.

You see, we can’t all be successful; certainly not in the way that success is usually defined. 

For all creatures, life is something of a competition.  We strive to do well, and doing well inevitably means doing better than somebody else.  The upshot is that we sometimes win and sometimes lose.  There is nothing we can do to change the fact (look what happened to communism), so the best option we have is to aim for scoring more victories than defeats, and perhaps reassess our personal definition of what success actually means.

At its most basic level, success is a fairly fixed notion.  To succeed in the broadest sense, all we need to do is not die of starvation or exposure, but it’s necessarily true that the bulk of the people we know haven’t fallen prey to either.  No, success has to mean more.

We frequently view success as financial, viewing those people with the fattest wallets to be successful and those scrimping for a little loose change to have failed.  There is certainly something to be said for this viewpoint, after all, those people tend to have more possessions than the rest of us, usually to travel to more exotic places, and generally have their kids in the best schools so they can follow in the footsteps of their wealthy parents.   On the face of it, they would appear to have succeeded.

Fame is another common measure of an individual’s success.  It is easy to view those people who always pop up in our newspapers, magazines, movies, and TV shows to have reached some sort of pinnacle of success.  They appear to lead glamourous lifestyles, and generally have all the trappings of wealth plus the adulation of a huge fan base, not to mention that they get recognised wherever they go and are constantly applauded for their skills.

Becoming a recognised and respected expert in any given field could well flag someone as successful.  After all, they have worked hard for their position, and have been recognised as being among the best at what they do.  They are usually moneyed, and frequently seem to do little more than pass the occasional comment on the work of others to maintain their position.

The examples above, and countless others are commonly used to define achievement, but why do we choose these criteria?  What is it that makes us consider these individuals to be successful?

I’m not sure that there is a simple answer, but I’m going to venture one anyway.  We consider people successful when they have something that we want but find it difficult to obtain.  If you want to be rich, people who are already rich appear successful.  Likewise, if you want to be famous.  But is this really the best rule by which to measure? 

In reality, success is determined by your own aspirations.  If you aspire to great wealth, then you can only succeed by attaining it.  If you aspire to be an authority in your field, then you will feel a failure if you don’t get there, no matter what else you manage to achieve in your life.  It’s that simple.  You succeed by getting what you set out for. 

It follows then, that if you want to start a revolution, write a book about it, get rich on book sales, but find that the people are unwilling to rise up against the powers of oppression, then you have failed.  You have become a wealthy failure, but a failure, nonetheless.  The majority of people, however, would be unlikely to view you in that light.  They would see that you now live in a big house and drive a Lambo.  Why?  Because most of them only want the financial benefits that you have bestowed upon yourself.  They have little interest in your actual goals.  It’s the same if you make a fortune from recording music that you don’t like, or if make a million from making YouTube videos about saving an animal that finally becomes extinct.  Your success can only be truly defined by your original intentions.

As ever, there is a solution that is far easier to explain than it is to perform, and that is to focus your aspirations on the process rather than the outcome.  If, for example, your goal is to become the world boxing champion, then you will probably fail.  There are just too many factors that are outside of your control.  If, on the other hand, you make your goal to do everything you can to make yourself the best boxer that you can be, whether or not you succeed is completely in your hands, and you just might become the champion.

If your goal is to be rich, you will probably not achieve it purely because the competition is fierce and only a few people can win it.  But make your aim to take every opportunity that you can to make money, and you only yourself to compete with. 

The process is now.  The process is real. Enjoy it. The end result is death.  Always.

Re-evaluating your notion of success and understanding the cost of failure really are the keys to contentment, so next time you toss a few coins to a homeless guy, take a moment to silently thank him for the sacrifice he has made to remind you of what really matters.

Grantham Montgomery.

Minister of Stuff.

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