Chapter 1 – Why Do We Fail? Success as a Paradox…
WITH the time and energy we spend in making failure a certainty we might have certain success.
A nonsensical paradox? No; fortunately it is a sober, literal truth, one which holds a great deal of promise.
Suppose a man had an appointment a hundred miles north of his home, and that if he kept it he would be sure of having health, much happiness, fair prosperity, for the rest of his life. He has just time enough to get there, just enough gas in his car. He drives out, but decides that it would be more fun to go twenty-five miles south before starting out in earnest.
That is nonsense! Yes, isn’t it? The gas had nothing to do with it; time had no preference as to how it would be spent; the road ran north as well as south, yet he missed his appointment. Now, if that man told us that, after all, he had quite enjoyed the drive in the wrong direction, that in some ways he found it pleasanter to drive with no objective than to try to keep a date, that he had had a touching glimpse of his old home by driving south, should we praise him for being properly philosophical about having lost his opportunity? No, we should think he had acted like an imbecile. Even if he had missed his appointment by getting into a daydream in which he drove automatically past a road sign or two, we should still not absolve him. Or if he had arrived too late from having lost his way when he might have looked up his route on a good map and failed to do so before starting, we might commiserate with him, but we should indict him for bad judgment.
Yet when it comes to going straight to the appointments we make with ourselves and our own fulfillment we all act very much like the hero of this silly fable: we drive the wrong way. We fail where we might have succeeded by spending the same power and time.
Failure indicates that energy has been poured into the wrong channel. It takes energy to fail.
Now this is something which we seldom see at once. Because we commonly think of failure as the conventional opposite of success, we continue to make false antitheses of the qualities which attend success and failure. Success is bracing, active, alert; so the typical attitude of failure, we believe, must be lethargy, inertia, a supine position.
True enough; but that does not mean that no energy is being used. Let any psychologist tell you how much energy a mature person must expend to resist motion.
A powerful struggle must be waged against the forces of life and movement in order to remain inert, although this struggle takes place so far beneath the surface of our lives that we do not always become aware of it. Physical inaction is no true sign that life-force is not being burned away. So even the idler is using fuel while they dream.
When failure comes about through devoting precious hours to time-killing pursuits, we can all see that energy is being diverted from its proper channel. But there are ways of killing time which do not look like dissipation. They can seem, on the contrary, like conscientious and dutiful hard work, they often draw praise and approval from onlookers, and arouse a sense of complacency in us. It is only by looking more closely, by discovering that this work gets us nowhere, that it both tires us and leaves us unsatisfied, that we see here again energy is being devoted to the pursuit of failure.
But why should this be so? Why, if, with the same energy we must use in any case, we might be succeeding, do we so seldom live the lives we hoped and planned to live? Why do we accomplish so little, and thwart ourselves senselessly? Why, when we start late, or run out of gas because of carelessness, or miss road-signs through daydreaming, do we think we are being properly philosophical when we give ourselves and others excuses for failure which will not hold water? No one truly consoles themselves by considering that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, that half-a-loaf is better than no bread. Such proverbs are the cynical distillation of experience, but they are nothing to live by. We deceive no one, although our compromises and excuses are accepted by our fellows as long as they are in the same boat. The successful man or woman listens to such whistling in the dark with amusement and incredulity, privately concluding that there is a great deal of hypocrisy loose in the world. They have the best of evidence that the rewards of well directed activity far surpass all the by-products of failure, that one infinitesimal accomplishment in reality is worth a mountain of dreams.
Even as we tell of the compensation of failure we are not quite comfortable. We do not truly believe – although our proverbs sound as though we did – that one must choose either success or the good life. We know that those who succeed see the same sunsets, breathe the same air, love and are loved no less than failures; and in addition they have something more: the knowledge that they have chosen to move in the direction of life and growth instead of acquiescing in death and decay. However we may talk, we know that Emerson was right when he wrote: “Success is constitutional; depends on a plus condition of mind and body, on power of work, on courage.” Then why do we fail? Especially, why do we work hard at failure?
Because, beside being creatures subject to the Will to Live and the Will to Power, we are driven by another will, the Will to Fail, or die.
It is possible to get back the energy that is now going into failure and use it to healthy ends. There are certain facts – plain, universal, psychological truths – which, when once seen, bring us to definite conclusions. From those conclusions we can make a formula on which to act. There is a simple, practical procedure which will turn us around and set our faces in the right direction. It is the formula, as we have said, on which, consciously or unconsciously, every successful person acts.
The procedure is simple, the first steps of putting it into practice so easy that those who prefer to dramatize their difficulties may refuse to believe that anything so uncomplicated could possibly help them. On the other hand, since it takes little time and soon brings its own evidence that, simple or not, its consequences are frequently amazing, it should be worth trying. A richer life, better work, the experience of success and its rewards: those ends are surely worth one experiment in procedure.
All the equipment needed is imagination and the willingness to disturb old habit-patterns for a while, to act after a novel fashion long enough to finish one piece of work. How long that period is will vary, of course, with the work to be accomplished, and whether it is all dependent on oneself or of the unwieldier type which the executive and administrator know, where the factor of other human temperaments must be taken into account.
In any case, some results from the experiment will be seen at once. Often these first results are so astonishing that to enumerate them here might alienate readers of a sober habit of mind. To hear of them before coming to them normally would be like hearing of miracles, and some of the effectiveness of the program might be lost by the intrusion of the very doubts we are out to banish.
Once more: however remarkable the results, the process is straightforward and uncomplicated. It is worth trying, for it has worked in hundreds of lives. It can work in any life that is not more truly dedicated to failure than to success.
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