Thoughts on Failure

An old friend calls me up for advice. What do you think, he asks, of me moving to Germany, to work? He tells me he’s unhappy where he is, an office where the people a nice enough but stuck in their ways. Nothing is challenging, nothing’s invigorating. I imagine the place and see a monotone of grey and dull eyes, a vacant meeting room and sticky notes. Cubicles. Beige and black computers towers. He talks of taking the chance to go abroad, to find something that is challenging, raw, and interesting, to find a place where he can thrive. What should I do? He asks me.
The answer is obvious to me: go, do it, be free, be wild and industrious. The thing I am always incredulous about is the fact that someone, anyone, might consider not trying at all. Why wouldn’t someone ever try to chase the thing they wanted most or if not, why not try to work towards it as best as one can? Why wouldn’t you do it? The alternative seems always to be, in its essential form, safety. Safety in the mundane, the expected. It’s understandable, though I feel almost no sympathy for it. There is safety in settling for the ordinary job for the median income for the average downpayment for the standard mortgage, all at some central cost to the self.
I am cynical and it is unfair. And it’s obvious to anyone that I am projecting my own fears. I know this. Maybe people are happy enough with all of these accomodations, perhaps they are okay with every little sacrifice. And despite all the lofty rhetoric, necessity bears heavily on the necks of many.
Though for me, the question remains: if there is potential to do so, why wouldn’t you try? Is it fear? Fear of failure. Fear that, in pursuing that greatest ideal, that true love of yours, you’ll stumble, falling in the dark and upon hitting the floor you imagine calling out in pain as lights shine on you from above and a chorus of laughter falls on you like a bucket of slime, that you’ll look around and see, know, that you have failed and that the thing you wanted most cannot be yours.

You fear knowing. Yet knowing that you failed is the same as knowing that you tried.

I’ve begun to think it takes a certain kind of courage to pursue the thing you really want, in spite of expectations. Throughout one’s life there is a constant throb in the ear, a constant prodding that tells you it is unwise to pursue the unlikely, and to even shame you for doing so by way of disparagement, of the constant and judging eye. But it is honourable, I think, to take the step towards the unlikely.
Another friend of mind has only recently decided that he will take this step. For years it has been a tinkering around the edges, flirting with the idea. The fear of failure, he tells me, is so much to contend with. The possible costs are high. There is no guarantee, despite the obvious talent, that success stands as the outcome.
But of course, if you don’t try, failure is the guarantee. In fact, it is worse than that. Failure implies an attempt. To not try at all is even less than a failure. It’s fundamentally more frightening than knowing. It is the opposite. It is without body, taste, or sight. It is nothing. It is not knowing. It’s quite the thing to picture yourself at some distant point in your life, in a swell of grief at realising it is too late, that the time for setting out on your ever-dreamt-of endeavour is gone, dust to time. Imagine the hollow and unedifying feeling of never knowing what could’ve been, your dream no better than an apparition.


I can see in my friend’s eye a feeling of emancipation. Finally he is setting out for something good, something that has potential for greatness. ‘Maybe I will fail,’ he supposes, ‘but the idea of never knowing if I don’t try—it’s terrible.’
You might think it unsafe, stepping into the dark. No one can pretend it is. Yet no one can pretend they did not wonder what lay in the dark and beyond. It’s like walking barefoot with only a candle in your hand, wind howling in your face, your hand shielding the naked flame. You are frightened in this moment, but so too you feel excitement and awe. You feel the way forward and you are alive in pursuit. And among all the uncertainties and anxieties that are likely to follow there is, suddenly, the possibility of success. 

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