In Praise of Failure

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by Neil Godfrey

Two interviews:

With Philip Adams: A new approach to failure
With David Rutledge: The lessons of failure

The opening words of the book — “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”

Picture yourself on a plane, at high altitude. One of the engines has just caught fire, the other doesn’t look very promising, and the pilot has to make an emergency landing. Finding yourself in such a situation is no doubt shattering, but also illuminating. At first, amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, you cannot think in any detached, rational fashion. You have to admit it, you are paralyzed by fear and scared to death, just like everyone else. Eventually, the plane lands safely, and everybody gets off unharmed. Once you’ve had a chance to pull yourself together, you can think a bit more clearly about what just happened. And you start learning from it.

You learn, for instance, that human existence is something that happens, briefly, between two instantiations of nothingness. Nothing first—dense, impenetrable nothingness. Then a flickering. Then nothing again, endlessly. “A brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” as Vladimir Nabokov would have it. These are the brutal facts of the human condition—the rest is embellishment. No matter how we choose to reframe or retell the facts, when we consider what precedes us and what follows us, we are not much to talk about. We are next to nothing, in fact. And much of what we do in life, whether we know it or not, is an effort to address the sickness that comes from the realization of this next-to-nothingness. Myths, religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, works of art and literature—they seek to make this unbearable fact a little more bearable.

A little further on in the Prologue — “how we relate to failure defines us”

The failure-based therapy that I offer in this book may seem surprising. After so much worshipping of success, failure’s reputation is in tatters. There seems to be nothing worse in our world than to fail—illness, misfortune, even congenital stupidity are nothing by comparison. But failure deserves better. There is, in fact, much to praise about it.

Failing is essential to what we are as human beings. How we relate to failure defines us, while success is auxiliary and fleeting and does not reveal much. We can live without success, but we would live for nothing if we didn’t come to terms with our imperfection, precariousness, and mortality, which are all epiphanies of failure.

“Only humility”:

In Praise of Failure is not about failure for its own sake, then, but about the humility that failure engenders, and the healing process that it triggers. Only humility, a “selfless respect for reality,” as Iris Murdoch defines it, will allow us to grasp what is happening. When we achieve humility, we will know that we are on the way to recovery, for we will have started extricating ourselves from the entanglement of existence.

So, if you are after success sans humility, you can safely ignore this book. It will not help you—it will only lead you astray.

We come to the Epilogue:

Every morning, when we wake up, there is a moment—the briefest of moments—when our memory hasn’t come back to us. We are not yet ourselves because we don’t have a story to tell. We can be anyone at this stage, but right now we are no one. We are a blank sheet of paper waiting to be written on. As our memory gradually returns, we start recalling things: where we are, what happened before we fell asleep, what we need to do next, the tasks of the day ahead. We start becoming ourselves again as the memory of these things comes back and slowly forms a story. When everything has fallen into place, and the story is complete, we can be said to have come back to life. We now have a self. The sheet is covered with our story—we are our story.

This is the most significant moment of every day, and philosophically the most gripping: the process through which we come into existence, and our self comes back to us, every time we wake up. If, for some reason, things failed to fall into place and form a coherent narrative, we would never find ourselves. The sheet would remain blank. We would miss ourselves in the same way we would miss someone who didn’t show up for a meeting.

Human beings are fundamentally narrative-driven creatures. Our lives take the shape of the stories we tell; they move this way or that as we change the plot. These stories are what gives our existence consistency, direction, and a unique physiognomy. We are irreducible individuals not because of, say, our DNA, but because no story can be told in exactly the same way twice. Even the slightest change of rhythm and diction produces a different story. Another person.

At our most intimate, then, we are what we tell ourselves we are. The German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey called this process the “coming together of a life”—Zusammenhang des Lebens. The stories we tell about our life are sometimes more important than life itself. They are what brings that life together and makes it what it is: our life. Without them, we would remain only some insignificant occurrence in the planet’s biosphere.


As storytelling animals, we need stories not just for coming into existence every morning, but for pretty much everything—for things big and small, important and trivial, ennobling and shameful. We need a good story to live by and to die for, to fall in love with someone and out of love with her, to help us fight for a cause or betray it.

We likewise need a story to cure ourselves of the umbilicus mundi syndrome. To achieve true humility it is not enough just to be humble. We also need to weave a story that structures our self-effacing efforts and gives them sustenance, continuity, and meaning. We have to narrate our way into humility. And that’s what renders humility one of the most difficult stories to tell. For the self that narrates is the same one that longs for self-effacement and seeks to be lowered and subdued. The narrator’s voice, so vital to storytelling, has to be silenced. But how are we going to tell a story with silence? How can we narrate ourselves and reduce ourselves to dust at the same time? Dust has never had any stories to tell. That puts humility and storytelling seriously at odds with each other.

Costica Bradaton reminds readers here of the stories he has told in the previous pages: of Simone Weil, of Mahatma Gandhi, of E. M. Cioran, of Osamu Dazai, of Seneca, of Yukio Mishima.

The final words:

At any given moment, we may find our life to be empty and our existence meaningless, but we know, at some deeper level, that we are not done yet. Our story is just not over, and it’s frustrating—profoundly, viscerally so—to quit a story before the end, whether it’s a book, a film, or your own life. Once we have reached that point, we may decide that there is nothing left to tell, but quitting the story while it is still being told is a violation not just of narrative but of nature. The longed-for meaning may be revealed at the very end, and we will no longer be there to receive the revelation. It is written, after all, that the “pearl” we are supposed to retrieve can only be found at the story’s end.

Can a story save my life, then? Yes, it can. The truth is, only a story can redeem our lives. And not just our lives, but life itself. That’s the reason why, in case you’ve wondered, there are so many stories in this book, from beginning to end. Without stories, we would be nothing.

There is enough to think about in the above to make it superfluous to add any of my own commentary at this point.