Chapter 4 – The Rewards of Failure
ABSURD as it may seem at first consideration that anyone would solemnly enter into even an unconscious conspiracy to fail, it is a matter of observation that there is hardly one person in a hundred who does not, in some fashion, deliberately cripple and thwart themselves. To understand why this should be so it is necessary to examine for a chapter what may be called, without paradox, the rewards of failure.
The recent widespread interest in all branches of psychology has accustomed us to accepting an idea which, when first offered, seemed laughable: that we are all at some level, engaged most of the time in reverie. We dream either consciously or unconsciously, awake or asleep, of a situation in which we feel we should be happier than we are in real life. Occasionally some childish idea of happiness or success crops up to confuse or hamper us in the business of adult living. Sometimes the dream is of a life of luxurious idleness, the childish Unconscious determined on refusing to leave the safe shelter of the nursery, where all wants were remedied as soon as felt, where warmth and food and love were given freely and unearned. As Emerson wrote, long before we had any technical vocabulary to express that backward turning reverie, long before we knew of “fixations” or of “narcissism” “We do not believe there is any force in today to rival or recreate that beautiful Yesterday. We linger in the ruins of the old tent where once we had bread and shelter.” To some extent this is true of all of us, but less true of the happy and successful adult than of others.
At other times, ludicrously enough, the life-wasting reverie is about success: the mild man is a Napoleon of war or finance, the mouse-like woman a siren. If reality never broke in upon such reverie, the dreamer might be happier, self-absorbed in their silent tale-spinning, than if they were to find themselves in a position to realize some part of it. Such reverie is in itself compensation for a life of dull routine or uneventful monotony. But, the world being what it is, the dreamer must live, for part of their time at least, in the cold atmosphere of fact. This is no Land of Cockaigne that we inhabit: roast pigs do not run about crying “Eat me!” Fruit does not fall from the trees into our mouths. However blissful the daydream we entertain, we must wake from it sometimes and struggle with the hard conditions of real living.
The inveterate dreamer will struggle only just as much as he need, and no more. He will do anything halfheartedly to get his bread and butter. Then, when his daily task is over, he will be back at his dreams again, whether he realizes it or not. He succeeds at only one thing: in clearing away a little space, gaining each day a few hours of free time, for just one purpose – to go on wasting his life. But his dream is happy. It is, for him, a true compensation for his failure in every other relation, and so he continues in it. Yet, since after all happiness is the true goal, he is deluded by not realizing that the smallest success in reality brings with it more happiness than years of reverie.
Nevertheless it is important to remember that the rewards of failure are real in their own sphere, for otherwise we will not brace ourselves to fight them adequately; and there are other rewards of failure besides dreams.
Consider, for instance, that if you try for anything just enough to give yourself some justification for saying that you have tried, you can fold your hands for the rest of your days. You can say humbly that you were tried and found wanting in those qualities which make for real success. This is rather a rare remark, but one of those which can be heard now and then from older failures, usually in a humorously deprecating tone. It will sound very honest and touching; and there is no earthly way in which it can be proved against the complainant that his statement is not fully true.
He has saved himself a lifetime of effort by some means, nevertheless. If you join this group you can watch the struggles of others with an eye half-amused, half-envious, enjoying the results of their successes, but perhaps even more – human nature being what it is – the spectacle of those who fail, and who take up their onlookers’ positions beside you.
Then, “Mankind is very superficial and dastardly,” as Franklin said. “They begin upon a thing, but meeting with a difficulty, they fly from it discouraged”; and why not, asks the Unconscious, when you can try, stop, and feel for the rest of your life that if you had tried just once more you would have made the grade? You can thereupon become a dilettante or amateur, frightfully hard to please by those who go on working, severest of all critics either professional or unprofessional, possessor of some inner knowledge, and able to hint at standards of excellence untouched by those who are still out trying to run the dusty race; standards so marvelous, so unattainable, that failure to reach them is more honorable, you may imply, than another man’s easy success. With not one thing completed, the acclaim you might have received, the enormous financial coup you might have brought off, the masterpiece you might have accomplished, can assume in your reverie, and in the eyes of those who will accept your version of things, almost more importance than the real success would.
Or you can become an abettor and sustainer of more persistent workers and artists, and perhaps that is the friendliest failure, the most successful failure, of all.
But notice that in all these cases you will at the very least have avoided the struggle, the pain, the humiliations that attend outward activity. You will never have to see the object you slaved to bring into being despised or misunderstood. You will never have to feel the rancor of those whom you necessarily surpassed in competition; you will never have to stand the cut of adverse criticism. You will never have to become aware of the malice of those who envy any success, however trivial. You will never have to back your opinions by argument when you are tired and would rather rest for new effort. Or, far deeper and more vital pain, you will never see the discrepancy between the finished work you can do and the work as you had hoped to do it. There is always that discrepancy to keep the honest worker really humble.
These matters of discomfort and pain evaded are important to notice, for when we come to examine the reasons why we so often choose to fail rather than to succeed, they will prove very illuminating. So it is worth understanding that if you fail, you are rewarded by not running the risk of getting hot and tired and discouraged, or sharp-tempered when your co-workers or your materials, whatever they are, seem more refractory than usual. If someone else does excellently in the line you had dreamed of for yourself, you can always believe that, if you had really tried again, you could have surpassed them.
And then, if you can remain inconspicuous, you will not have the experience of outstripping someone you love. This is, perhaps, most commonly the woman’s Reward of Failure, although the children of distinguished parents or the disciples of outmoded masters in any line also know it. Still, it is only right to say that many who dread the experience of causing pain to another are never called upon to meet it; they failed to take into account the generosity of love. So it is often an excuse for not working that is at the root of this inaction, too, not a real matter of compromising with ambition in order to keep a vital relationship unspoiled.
By failing one escapes much gossip and incomprehension, the semi-scandalous talk which most often springs up about those who succeed. To dread this immoderately is neurotic, but this dread does often act as a deterrent to many a success. All vital persons are the target of the curiosity of those who are not vital; but the few whose opinions concern you will know the truth, and the others are of no importance. Yet many withdraw from active life, not to take up an intenser inner life, but merely to avoid the vulgar curiosity of the crowd.
And then, if you have failed not too awkwardly, you are usually more delightful as a companion than a better worker. Those who reach real success are likely to be constant workers. Even in their hours of recreation they frequently are preoccupied with some element of the thing they are engaged in doing. The successful man has less free time, and observes more punctiliously his self-set hours for withdrawing from companionship, than the failure. He can seldom be counted on for impromptu gaieties, since he is not unconsciously intent on finding any escape at all from the unsatisfactory conditions of his life. And, since he has none of the deep interior guilt which haunts the one who knows he is failing, he is under no compulsion to be winning. He reserves his humor and charm, his emotion and indulgence, for those whose lives are closely bound up with his by his own choice. So, except among his real intimates, he may have the name of being gruff and unapproachable, or too coolly civil. As long as you cannot bear the notion that there is a creature under 21 heaven who can regard you with an indifferent, an amused or hostile eye, you will probably see to it that you continue to fail with the utmost charm.
Perhaps it will be helpful to look for a while at three lives in which the Will to Fail was at work. In every case the onlooker would see a life of considerable activity, such obvious activity that he would at first glance be likely to agree with the victims that they were in the grip of a perverse fate. On closer examination, each failure will be seen to be by no means determined by any factor outside the individual character.
Each of these persons had within himself or herself the abilities necessary to make a full, happy, productive life; each spent what energy they had on defeating their ostensible intention: one saw her mistake and rectified it, one died without facing the truth about his wasted talents. The third is still struggling with his problem, as far from success as ever, though his name is well known.
Case 1 is that of a woman, left a widow while she was still very young. She came of a scholarly family, and had been a brilliant student at college. With the little money left to care for herself and her small daughter, she returned to the campus to take degrees as Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy in preparation for a career as an educator.
Actually (as she found to her astonishment when her difficulties became so great as to force her to seek advice) she delighted in being a student again, in continuing to live in the condition of a child in an adult world, and therefore strung out her period of preparation as long as she dared. After her .D. was earned, she made what looked to herself and her friends like a good honest effort to find a suitable niche for herself.
Only she invariably engaged in wrangling acrimoniously with those who would have to be her superiors, and always about some rather remarkable and original economic ideas of her own. These ideas had nothing whatever to do with the subject she was to teach; their acceptance or rejection by the entire world would not have made one grain of difference in the class-room work which she was called on to perform; but by making an issue of having her absurd and quixotic ideas taken seriously by her co-workers, she brought about – each time she found a position – a situation in which she was distinctly disliked by the very persons on whose goodwill she was dependent.
She went from one post to another, never holding one longer than the year for which she had contracted. She was a good teacher, a well-informed student, and she had much to give, but she carefully saw to it that she would never be in a position to work very hard for very long. Her hopes of a professorship faded. She went from good colleges steadily downgrade to obscure little schools, and as she slipped steadily down she worked out a philosophy which reconciled her to her steady decline. She held that we all live much too luxuriously, and put too high a value on becoming clothes, good food, and comfort. At last she reached the place where she felt justified in taking an apartment in a tenement district of a large city. Her defiant self-justification broke down, however, when it came to inviting friends to visit her. She grew more and more solitary, more and more eccentric, her running fire of bravado continuing all the while.
Fortunately for her, her one child was a girl, and a girl who grew up to be extremely bright and attractive. She was quite unimpressed by her mother’s pseudo-philosophy; she knew that she was being handicapped at every turn by the oddness of their living and dressing, and as she emerged into adolescence she began to fight for a more reasonable life, a suitable background. Matters came to such a pass that either the mother had to take cognizance of the girl’s objections or lose her daughter. All the efforts to correct her false position which she made by herself were unavailing. She still brought about the old wrangles whenever possible, she still held the unsatisfactory position to which she had dropped only on tolerance and because she had come to accept a very small salary, in spite of her training and ability.
When at last she sought help from a psychologist she discovered to her dumbfounded astonishment that she had actually thrown all her energy into failing. Unconsciously she had resented having to go out into the world to work. She wanted to remain either a child or become again a cherished and petted wife. Her wrangles had been, as the analysts say, “over-determined”: they were intended partly to make it certain that she would be discharged so that work would become impossible, partly to engage the attention of men. Since she could not acknowledge to herself that she was cold-bloodedly “husband-hunting,” she had fallen on the technique – quite as effective in challenging attention as being charming – of starting quarrels. She had a long, hard pull to right the situation she had brought upon herself, but she was eventually successful.
Case 2 is such a one as can be found in almost every town and village in the country, a failure of the sort that is not only treated tenderly, but often looked upon as being in some vague way much nobler and finer than any success. It was that of a man with a good mind, noted for his integrity and yet not without a vein of good Yankee ingenuity. He lived and died in the small town of his birth; a rather ugly little manufacturing town. Not because he loved it loyally and wanted nothing better; his reading was always of travel and adventure, and he continually spoke wistfully of countries and places he had never seen. Not that he had no opportunity – opportunity came and tried to hound him into activity. He was the manager of a branch store of a large business, and so satisfactory at it that he was offered a similar position in a larger city, at a correspondingly better salary. He accepted with joy; then within two days he wrote a letter saying that he had reconsidered, that he did not believe that he could fill the better position. His timidity grew on him. A few years later he was combating every improved method that his firm tried to introduce, afraid to try the new ways. A little later he was such an obstructionist that his firm retired him on a minute pension, and he became the town’s lovable homespun philosopher.
A senator spoke movingly at his funeral; his fellow townsmen were inconsolable…. Perhaps it is deplorably callous to point out that his wife had preceded him to the grave by ten years, worn out with overwork; that one son had no education beyond what he could get at the village school, although he had as good a mind as his father; that the other son had to work his way through college, thus dividing his energy and strength (for it is only one more fallacy of the American creed that to work one’s way through college is the ideal way of getting an education); that his daughter had taken refuge in a loveless marriage from a home that had never had enough of the ordinary comforts or attractions.
Let us be perfectly plain about one point: to hold that honest success is in some way ignoble is one of two things – pretense or cant. There is a tyrannical effort to impose this fallacy on us, arising perhaps from a confusion of the mere word “success” with the idea of a great fortune arrived at by fair means or foul. But that there is anything ignoble in accomplishing well what one sets out to do, and in receiving in return rewards in the shape, sometimes of the approval of one’s peers, sometimes the quiet knowledge that the world is richer for one’s contribution, or sometimes in money paid out gladly for an object or services fully worth the price to the purchaser – such an idea is nonsense, and the very opposite of what it is usually claimed to be, “philosophical.” William Ernest Hocking, in his excellent book, Human Nature and Its Remaking, has this to say on that very point: “If command of the fruits of the earth is the normal and destined position for man, why should one who has achieved such a position, and in so doing has shown large powers of one kind or another, not receive the recognition that he, in so far, has succeeded? It is a man’s work to make a fortune, and under normal circumstances a measure of ability.” Many who know Case 3 by his name would protest loudly at his appearance here incognito as an illustration of the Will to Fail at work. He is a writer, and the son of a writer. From the first he has been under such a fortunate star that he knows almost nothing of the long struggle for recognition which is so often the prelude to a literary career. Nevertheless, at one and the same time he lives in terror of failure and in the grip of an instinct which seems to drive him in that direction. He will not work until he is desperate for money; then he will write like mad, tiring himself till he is poisoned with fatigue, and acts afterwards like a convalescent.
Trying to overcome this bad working-habit under the advice of a psychiatrist, he attempted to work, more than once, when there was no urgent necessity for money. In those circumstances he invariably turned out stories which were unacceptable until rewritten. The world knows nothing, of course, of those wasted efforts, that time spent on the disheartening revisions which he is constantly called on to do. Each time this occurs his career seems drearier and less glamorous to him, his belief that he can eventually write a book he will not be ashamed to sign with his name grows dimmer. Here again analysis brought some illumination as to the unconscious reason for this action, and again the tendency to do haphazard and unsatisfactory work was over-determined: there was on the one hand a dread of surpassing his illustrious father at the same profession, on the other the sly unconscious notion that if the stories he seemed to slave over were rejected he would not have to work at all, and would be free to dream through his life in his own way. For the Unconscious always refuses to understand that reality must be taken into account, refuses to admit that “work or die” is the rule the average mortal must live by.
Yet this tormented man recurrently has an experience which might, if he could comprehend it, show him the way out of his dilemma: when he is at last desperate for money, when he cannot go any longer on credit or the indulgence of his friends, or his reputation, when, in short, he has the courage of desperation, he writes material which is immediately accepted. Instead of drawing the workable conclusion from this fact, he has made it an item of superstition: only work done, as he says, “at the thirteenth hour,” is ever lucky for him! So he continues on his treadmill.
Now, in each of these cases, failure, or comparative failure, brought its reward with it: escape from adult effort and time to waste in day-dreaming. Only in those cases where frustration was more painful than success was there any attempt to reshape the life-pattern.
Do you feel that obviously those who waste life in this way are at least mildly insane? We all make similar difficulties for ourselves, avoid work, miss opportunities. Have you ever looked back and thought, “If I had done this or that five years ago I’d be better off now?” But the opportunity was there; why didn’t you see it? Are you sure that you are not closing your eyes at this moment to one which you will see later in retrospect? Is the Will to Fail not operating in your own life every day? Yet the rewards of success are so immeasurably more worth having. Once more, the smallest task well done, the smallest object, out there in the world where it would not have been if you had not acted, brings in a moment more satisfaction than the failure knows in a lifetime. The knowledge that one is being tried by a real scale and not by the shifting standards of reverie is like having land underfoot after weeks of drifting at sea. Only those who are at work on the best they can do are free from the danger of panic-stricken awakening to reality – awakening sometimes so late that the very habits and attitudes of normality are forgotten.
And, beside the innumerable purely subjective advantages, there are the rich objective rewards. A dream-picture brings no buyer, a dream-plan no dividends, a fantasied book is followed by no royalty statements. Crass as this may sound in a world which spends a great deal of its breath in persuading futilitarians that they have chosen the better part, it is the literal truth and stands for a truth still greater. Fantasy may call the grapes of reality sour, but those who have tasted them know at last a dependable delight.
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