Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 22

In Defense of 'Failure'

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In defense of "Failure"

Hi this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. A lot people have trouble with the word "failure." I actually think it's important to come to terms with the term "failure" and I'm gonna talk about how and why to do that a little bit today.

Replacing the word "failure" with some euphemism or pretending it doesn't exist is dangerous. The word may be harsh, but the reality is harsher -- and the reality isn't going away. When you use euphemisms, the failure is still there, in fact, it's all over the place: it then infiltrates big tracts of your language, it hides behind other, nicer seeming words. You can't trust those other nicer seeming words any more. They've been tainted. An enemy that was out in the open is now hiding in the jungle. You have to worry about being ambushed all the time. By using a clear, unambigous, uncompromising word, you contain the concept, you prevent it from seeping into the rest of your language.

Don't wallow in failure, but don't blind yourself to it. I think the best way to deal with failure is to accept that it happens, forgive yourself and learn from it when it happens, and try not to let it happen again. If you pretend it's not there you're just going to turn everything into foul is fair mush. Forgive yourself, but forgive yourself for *something*.

Failure is a useful concept. Without failure there can be no success. "Setback" implies that success is inevitable. That is neither true nor inspiring. It's no more inevitable than failure. You have to work. Don't despair, but don't sit around and wait.

"OK"ness isn't even a euphemism for failure. It's worse. It's code for never having really tried. It's nothing towards which one aspires, it's about not aspiring at all.

You often hear "the world isn't black and white, it's shades of gray." This is true, in a way. But is it useful? Effective moral action requires upping the contrast a little (or a lot). So no, black and white is too simple, but I think the more fashionable shades of gray has its risks too. One of the chief advantages of the no s diet, for example, is that it forces sharp distinctions, not because this presents the most accurate picture of the world, but because it enables effective action in the world. You need to see failure clearly to avoid it. Did you swerve a bit more than you absolutely needed to? Maybe so, but at least you saw it and swerved.

It's not "shades of grey" vs. "black and white." It's about the appropriate level of contrast. If everything is a gray soup to you, morally or otherwise, you'll never get anything done, except maybe pat yourself on the back for the bootless fidelity of your moral vision. Effective action requires that you up the contrast to a certain level. Do you lose accuracy? Yes. But our job is not to describe the world in all it's exceptional detail. Our job is to act in it. Can you overdo this? Of course. Every evil has an equal and opposite evil. It's like the two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, that Odysseus had to sail between. But I'd say most people diet-wise err on the side of low contrast. They worry about black and white Charybdis when gray Scylla is having them for lunch (or as a midnight snack).

Nos makes the bulk of your eating decisions a simple binary right/wrong. Is there some gray around the edges? Sure. Is there a lot of gray on the weekends? Yes. Gray is much harder than black and white. It's also inevitable. Don't rush into it. If you can't see black and white, there's no way you can see shades of gray. So get yourself strong on high contrast N days and you'll have a chance on shadowy S days.

Frankly, black, white, and gray are all depressing stuff. How about some color? Red, yellow, green works well for me... If you have no idea what I'm talking about, look in the archives for the podcast I did on the habit traffic light.

Lastly, having a failure is different from being a failure, and I'll agree that the latter is probably not a productive way to think about oneself under any (non-criminal) circumstances. Not only are the concepts of "having a failure" and "being a failure" distinct, but I think that by admitting that you have failures and calling them that, you are actually less likely to think of yourself as being a failure. Because by talking about "having failures," you take this bad thing that clearly exists in the world and has some relation to you and acknowledge its badness and its relation to you while still keeping it separate from you. Otherwise, it sticks around, unauthorized, like a ghost or a disgruntled relative, much closer than you'd like. Own it, own up to it, or you become it.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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