“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.
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?