I want to explore my view on what success and failure mean.
As always, with language it comes down to semantics. We all mean something different when we talk about success. Everyone is viewing the world through their own filter.
What is important, is to examine what your definition is. Otherwise you can be unconsciously influenced and just wholesale adopt the definitions of others
A few definitions that may be possible
- Make a ton of money
- Have a high status career
- Fulfil all your desires
- Be a moral/good person
- Help people
There are many definitions, and they are all individual.
But success tends to be a way of saying that you’ve fulfilled whatever desires you have. Failure means you haven’t.
What’s wrong with success = fulfilling all your desires?
Suppose you fulfil all your desires. You’ve been incredibly fortunate (or arguably unfortunate). You’ve made money, have a high status job, even have a loving caring family. You might have struggled, been through mental breakdowns, destroyed relationships. You’ve built this edifice. You’re at the top of the mountain.
But you haven’t realised that you will have to climb back down.
But you haven’t realised that its impermanent. It’s all just wooden scaffolding, and one day it will all burn down.
I swear I’m not a nihilist. I’m the opposite. (I’m rationally optimistic)
Maybe a parable will help. This is a Taoist story
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.
There is no good or bad, only thinking makes it so
The point of the parable is that life is inherently full of loss and gain. You can’t have one without the other by definition.
I’ve internalised this so deeply, that I always instinctively question any praise or criticism. Default thought that comes up is “Is that so?”.
If you choose to define success and failure that way and cling to it, then it causes a great deal of misery.
What’s the alternative?
In all things have no preferences Miyamoto Mushashi
I don’t tend to think of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ anymore. A more adaptive and useful framing is ‘learning point’.
There is no good or bad, only thinking makes it so. Reality just is. It’s just when our judgement ‘module’ comes online, that suddenly things are deemed good or bad.
You can see this in meditation. You might have this incredible pain in your knee while sitting. You’re struggling, resisting. All because you are ‘thinking’ without knowing you are thinking. Then suddenly you ‘see’ the thought, ‘this is bad’. And that awareness itself, just dissolves the struggle. Immediately. It becomes raw sensation, with ‘thought’ overlaid on top of it. Thinking without knowing you are thinking is the root. It can dissolve it instantly with awareness.
Events are largely up to your interpretation. Loss is not ‘bad’. It is just loss. Gain is not ‘good’. It is just gain.
This way of seeing, I realise is not the norm in society. I look at other people and kind of think they’re definition is weird (maybe I’m the weird one) and it causes a lot of misery.
Fortunately this view has been articulated in Eastern philosophies (and Western stoicism), which is why I immediately connected with them. They articulate it a lot better than me…
But I can tell you its pretty damn peaceful, and paradoxically I’m more effective with basically no ‘stress’.
Desire is not bad… but clinging to it without realising it will change can be unpleasant
Desire is inevitable.
Obviously we all have basic desires for food, shelter etc
But if you haven’t noticed, we also have a desire for security. A desire that things will remain as they are. That we will be untouched by grief, sorrow, loss.
We desire security in an inherently insecure changing world. Expectation and reality collide.
We want one side of the coin: gain, ‘success’, ‘money’. But we don’t want the other.
So we cling to desire and push against loss. Without realising that what goes up must also come down. I encapsulate this into the well known aphorism:
‘Desire is suffering’. It’s that clinging to one side of the coin, without realising that one must accept both.
So how do we think about desire?
Be aware of desires
Be aware of whatever desires you have. Because any desire you have is basically saying : I refuse to be content until this is satisfied.
So don’t have too many! Especially the small ones, like desiring someone to be slightly different because you don’t like something about them, or desiring better weather etc.
Don’t have small desires that accumulate and subtly make life unsatisfactory. Have larger desires.
What are my desires?
Thought this would be a useful exercise to think about.
I have desires in life. Things ‘I’ want.
- Large family
- Time and financial independence
Maybe I’ll get them. Maybe I won’t. But neither is good or bad…