Two Types of Failure

There are two types of failure that self-help enthusiasts talk about. There’s the failure to achieve a particular outcome, which is generally viewed as an inevitable step on the bumpy road to success. Then there’s the failure to even try to succeed, which they will tell you is thoroughly unacceptable. I’m here to tell you that both are types of failure are not only necessary, but they’re also good.

People may not try for any number of reasons:

Attachment: They may be attached to certain things in their past and be unwilling to move forward. An example of this is when you don’t ask any women out on dates, even though you’re single and lonely, because you are fixated on a past girlfriend or prospect who has already rejected you. This unhealthy attachment keeps you from looking for new women.

Laziness: Whether laziness is a sin in its own right or a secondary product of other issues is up for debate, but all agree it’s definitely something people are. I would argue that just as to be attached is to dwell in the past, so too to be lazy is to dwell in the present. Lazy people sacrifice large future benefits for small immediate pleasures. Instead of applying to jobs, you watch television.

Fear: Continuing the pattern of temporal emotional stumbling blocks, one may fail to act due to fear of what may happen. Unlike the forward-looking attitudes I encourage you to adopt in order to conquer your attachment and laziness, fear is neither rational nor healthy (even if it is forward-looking). When considering fear, picture yourself as a picky eater (maybe you are one!) who is so afraid that food might not a certain food might not taste good that you don’t try many foods which are probably delicious.

Contrast these three types of failure-through-inaction with failing to get a good performance review because you struggle with being detail oriented. You worked hard, but you failed anyways, and that’s unequivocally a good thing because it teaches you about your strengths and weaknesses. It gives you guidance on how to proceed in the lifelong process of self-improvement. This type of failure may be termed useful failure.

Failure to try, on the other hand, is said to be a useless failure because it doesn’t teach you anything. It prevents you from learning about your strengths and weaknesses and leads to stagnation. I argue, however, that failure to try is useful, and the fact that so many people seem to struggle with attachment, laziness, and fear suggests that the self-help literature would do well to consider overcoming these issues with at least as much fervor as it has directed toward discipline and stick-to-itiveness.

Of course, the self-help community understands that most people fail to act in the first place. The seduction community terms the failure to approach woman “approach anxiety,” or AA. The fitness community calls those who fail to work out “couch potatoes.” The education community refers to students who don’t do their homework “unmotivated.” This language is problematic when trying to deal with the failure to act. The advice for dealing with AA is to approach again and again until the habit is stronger than the anxiety. The advice for couch potatoes is to “Just Do It!” And to call students “unmotivated” is to lay the blame for their inaction on external factors which it then becomes the job of the parents, teachers, the system, the material itself, or any number of other actors to motivate them. None of these are responsible for the students’ torpor. Not only is this unfair to those other actors, but it is unfair to the students who are taught that they don’t have within themselves the power to change.

Instead of using language that is at best pandering and at worst coercive, let’s face the inertia problem with the same optimistic zeal we direct toward ‘useful failures.’ To say that we don’t learn anything when we fail to try is self-evidently false. We learn that not doing anything doesn’t solve anything. And to understand our personal challenges is to gain the ability to face them. If those challenges appear before we even start down the self-help road, then that doesn’t make those challenges any less real than the more tangible challenges we’re told we should expect to face along the road.

I’ve faced attachment, laziness, and fear. I’m facing them even as I write this, and I’ll probably be struggling with them for years to come if not my whole life. Having weaknesses doesn’t make me weak. Failing again and again doesn’t make me a failure. Losing the battle within day in and day out doesn’t make me a loser. It makes me a learner. It gives me experience. It gives me strength.

It took me twenty years of people telling me I was wasting my time to learn the value of stagnation. I learned my triggers, distractions, fears, and demons. Imagine how much more quickly I could have accomplished that if I had been taught to focus on those challenges instead of ignoring them. I was told, “get to work,” not to ask myself, “what is keeping you from working?” Just as the last century has seen a movement to de-stigmatize alcoholism, mental retardation, and poverty, so too is it time to de-stigmatize attachment, laziness, and fear. The attached aren’t “obsessive” or “creepers.” The lazy aren’t “slugs.” The fearful aren’t “cowards.”

They’re just all students.


Photo is the Witch's Cauldron, another crater on the island inside Crater Lake, OR. You can see me running down it if you look closely.