It’s How You Play The Game: Why Every Man Needs To Learn Failure

It’s How You Play The Game:  Why Every Man Needs To Learn Failure
When our self-worth is centered entirely on succeeding, we become paralyzed by the possibility of failure. To ever really succeed, we have to learn to see "attempting" as the true success.

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong….”

Those were the mournful words of a wise old man, reflecting on the unfairness of existence. And while they were spoken nearly 3,000 years ago, they're as true today as they were back then.

Life just isn't fair.

It doesn't work the same way it does in books or music or the movies.

No matter how smart we are, no matter how hard we work, no matter how honest, courageous, diligent, or decent we might be, we're still very much the victims of random chance.

We might spend weeks on formulating a budget and still miss a key expense that would've kept us out of the red. We might find the perfect job opportunity, only for a traffic jam to prevent us from making the interview on time. We might bump into the woman of our dreams, followed by her boyfriend just two minutes later.

Sooner or later we're going to have to accept that there are things in the universe which are simply outside of our scope of control. Bad stuff will still happen and there is nothing – nothing– we can do to change that.

And it's ok.

Why?

Because Failure Is Inevitable

We will fail more often than we succeed, and that's just a fact. For every one Oscar winner for Best Actor there's half a dozen nominees who got nothing. Beyond them are hundreds of folks who never even got nominated. Same goes for every Olympic gold medal, every Super Bowl ring, every heavyweight title, and every political office, scholarship, or promotion. Inevitably the losers are going to find themselves in the majority, and we'll often find ourselves right there along with them.

But how often are we prepared for that?

When we do fail, we often viciously berate ourselves. We feel inconsolable guilt and anger. Plenty of us get so worked up that the only remedy is to pretend that we didn't really want it anyways.

The simple truth of the matter is that we need to get good at failing.

Now is that to say we should just become defeatists?

Of course not.

What we should be able to do, however, is accept defeat with good grace. We need to understand that it's absolutely not the end of the world. Even the most successful person will be able to tell you that his or her career was marked by far more stumbles and fumbles than victories and, to quote another great man, that “sucking at something is the first step to not sucking at something”.

Rather than beating ourselves up or talking ourselves down we need to approach the situation fairly and rationally. When we stop seeing failure as an indelible blemish or a sign of something fundamentally wrong with us we can begin to discern our actual errors from simple bad luck. Perhaps we slid on that patch of wet grass at the beginning of the game. Nothing to be done about that. Perhaps we just didn't catch the ball right on that last pass. Well, that at least, is something we can fix.

The better we are at accepting failure, the less likely we are to fail in the future. But even then there's danger…

Because Glory Fades

What about the times when we do win?

They say that “winners write the history books”. They say that “to the victors go the spoils”. They say that “there's no glory in defeat”.

Well, there's precious little in triumph, either.

How many of us can honestly say we recognize names and accomplishments like Scipio Africanus? Ibn Batuta? James A. Garfield? [editor’s note: clicking on any of those links will cause a long, interesting journey down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. -AS]

Brilliant military commanders, intrepid explorers, and shrewd politicians (respectively) – but how many people could even guess who they were or what they accomplished? As history rolls inexorably onwards the same anonymity will fade the legacy of countless “successful” men and women, and when all's said and done winners aren't all that different from the losers.

“Sic transit gloria” the ancient Romans said. “Glory fades.” And as it does, we're forced to ask ourselves a difficult question:

“If your decisions were fated to either fail or be forgotten, would you try to change them?”

The answer should be a resounding no.

Because Losing Is Liberating

At first glance, the concept of being ruled by random chance might sound utterly dispiriting. After all, if we can make all the right choices and still fail then why make any at all?

Because success isn't the point.

When our only measure of a person's worth gets based on some visible (and ultimately fleeting) definition of success, then “winning” becomes the only thing that matters. And with that mercenary “ends-justify-the-means” mindset we'll often find ourselves swiftly doing anything to get ahead. Cheat, lie, steal, betray those closest to us, or even break with the most fundamental elements of ourselves.

Just look around us.

How many of our heroes have had their minute of glory only to be discredited or disgraced immediately afterwards? Is it really any surprise that in our victory-obsessed culture we have countless athletes charged with using performance-enhancing drugs? Is there any shock to be had when we catch rock stars lip-syncing to their own music or witness the most earnest politician get outed as corrupt? Are we honestly stunned when our favorite comedian plagiarizes his or her jokes?

Always winning so often means playing by someone else's rules. It can mean playing to the crowd rather than speaking honestly. Cutting corners with the excuse that “everyone else is doing it.” Sticking to the safe and conventional instead of sailing over the edge of the map.

Losing, on the other hand, allows us a degree of choice and integrity we'd never find anywhere else. Once we accept that there's a chance we won't succeed – that there's elements in play simply outside of our control – then we're suddenly freed from the whole paradigm.

So why not choose your way?

If nothing in this life is certain, then why sell out? Sure, you can make some Faustian deal with the devil, but even that is going to be no guarantee of victory. Or even for those who do wind up winning the world at the expense of their soul, how long does that even last?

But again, none of that is to endorse stupidity. Not every little decision has to be some glorious suicide charge or bloody last stand. But we do need to draw our own lines and decide for ourselves what metrics we're going to live by.

Because Failure Makes Us Better

Yes, the good guys lose.

But that doesn't stop them from being good, and that, perhaps more than anything, is what we need to understand. We too often rob great men and women of the credit and respect they deserve and ourselves of the role models and heroes we need, simply because these people had the bad fortune of… well, bad fortune.

As easy as it can be to pass judgment, each and every last one of us lives precariously at the edge of disaster. Recognizing failure as a natural and inescapable element of life provides us a much needed degree of empathy and compassion. “There but for grace go I…,” as the old saying goes. The more we're able to discern failure from unforeseeable circumstance, the better we're able to empathize with those marching alongside us.

And for those of us still struggling to find our feet in adulthood, isn't that exactly what we need? Now, more than at any other time in our lives, we're going to be faced with the challenges of establishing ourselves while still pursuing our goals and dreams. Some of us won't make it. All of us will stumble. And as we do, each and every one of us is going to need a little understanding, a little compassion, and for our misfortunes to be treated as misfortunes rather than screw-ups and sins.

And what will the result be?

A world where we can all be more daring. A world where we're measured not by chance or dumb luck, but by the nobility of our intentions, the loftiness of our goals, and the passion with which we pursue them.

No, the race is still not going to go to the swift. The battle is still not going to go to the strong. But still, if you knew, right here and now, that you could attempt anything, and even in failure still be treated with dignity and respect –

-is there anything you wouldn't attempt?

Gordon Brown is a former ex-pat recently moved back to the US from the Middle East. He spends his time working as a vocational counselor and downing more energy drinks than is healthy and/or sane. You can find more of his fevered scribblings and subversive, revolutionary tracts over at CultureWarReporters.com..

  • Rt1583

    “Because success isn’t the point.”
    Success is the point though. Nobody purposely sets out to fail. Our every action, from toddlerhood (raiding the cookie jar) to death (wringing every last minute from life) is taken on with success in mind. Without the idea of success no action would ever be undertaken unless it was driven by survival instinct.
    Stating or believing that success isn’t the point reinforces the blue ribbon mentality, wherein everyone gets a blue ribbon just for showing up. If this is the mentality children are raised under how are they ever going to truly know failure until they encounter it head on, as a young adult, with absolutely no frame of reference with which to deal with it? On the flip side of the coin how can they truly know success when everybody succeeds just because they showed up?
    Success is the point. If you don’t succeed learn from the failure and try again if given the opportunity but don’t call the failure a success.

    “A world where we’re measured not by chance or dumb luck, but by the nobility of our intentions, the loftiness of our goals, and the passion with which we pursue them.”
    This is a completely subjective assessment and, to a certain extent, points back to your statement on the measure of a person’s worth.
    Martin Luther King’s followers thought his intentions noble, his goals lofty and his passion pure. Hitler’s followers thought the same about his intentions, goals and passion.
    My success and worth as a person is subjectively and differently judged by every person I interact with (online or real world) and there truly is very little I can do to influence that judgment.
    The only thing I can control is the yard stick by which I measure my own success. My personal measure of success is if, after my decisions or actions have been executed, I can stand proud before those very few people in my life who I hold most dear. I don’t apply this to every decision and action (that would be unnecessary and far too prohibitive) but I do apply when I question myself and my motives regarding the outcome of a decision or action. I have found that this process stands me in good stead in the majority of my interactions. And this is a completely subjective statement.

    • bryclops

      I don’t understand your comment. You seem to disagree with the idea of a person based on their intentions… but then you seem to measure your own success based on your intentions/motives.

      • Rt1583

        “A world where we’re measured not by chance or dumb luck, but by the nobility of our intentions, the loftiness of our goals, and the passion with which we pursue them.”
        I disagree with the above statement as far as judging another person, which is what that statement is about, based on the three points listed because it is entirely subjective and there is no way for me to really know what a persons true intentions, goals and passions are. In a way those three points could be worn like a $3000 suit to show the public but they may not be representative of the person’s private life.
        I measure my success (judge myself) based upon my intentions/motives because I actually do know myself and my intentions, goals and passion.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      I think we fundamentally agree on things.

      A few thoughts:

      – My disdain for blue ribbon thinking is equal to my disdain for our culture’s insistence on “there’s no room for second place”.

      – If we’re competing, whether in sports, business, or life in general, we should be competing against our former selves, striving to be the best we can be. The problem with most “success” thinking is, even if someone works hard, trains/practices, improves themselves to every degree, but they come up short to someone else, they have failed. There will always be someone better. A business that makes more money. A guy with a more beautiful wife. An athlete that wins more than you. A competitor that wins more pitches. If we allow ourselves to see everything that isn’t a 100% “win” as a failure we’ll be consumed by a fear of failing more and a loss in motivation to continue to improve.

      – Just because success isn’t the point, doesn’t mean we’re setting out to fail. If you go out on a date and it’s a terrible date it shouldn’t be seen as a failure: It’s a success because you’re getting out there and dating and meeting people. If every time it doesn’t work out with a potential partner it’s seen as a miserable failure, our confidence and resolve plummet.

      – Your thoughts on subjectivity aren’t wrong, this whole article is a subjective look into how we see our actions/goals/wins/failures.

      • Rt1583

        Agree that there is always going to be someone better, even if you’re able to hold the pinnacle for a time someone will come along to knock you off, so it truly is a waste of time and energy to measure success by this standard.

        “If you go out on a date and it’s a terrible date it shouldn’t be seen as a failure: It’s a success because you’re getting out there and dating and meeting people.”
        This is walking a very fine line which cuts right between success and pretending that you really didn’t want to be with that person anyway. Dating a particular person or getting out to meet new people are two different goals which can lead to success or failure in their own rights.

        • Gordon Brown

          And that’s a dilemma that’s certainly going to confront everyone dealing with this very issue. The cavalrymen of the light brigade could be seen
          as heroic in their suicidal charge, or simply as unlucky saps who blindly followed bungled orders. Ultimately, I think it’s going to come down to a need for personal awareness- “do I do this because I choose to, or because I’m compelled to?”
          We’re all gonna struggle with our sense of integrity, but struggle we must, and I think kicking the socially accepted dichotomy of “winners and losers” is the first step to developing any real code of conduct for ourselves.

  • Ron dez Vous

    Success is when preparation meets opportunity. We can handle the preparation component, but anyone who tells you that opportunities are plentiful these days doesn’t understand today’s job market.