I’m a failure. And I’m ok with that.
There are a lot of things I’ve failed at. I’m a failure as a professional artist and photographer. I’m a failure as a comic publisher. I’m sure you could probably find plenty of women in my past who would quite happily tell you that I’m a failure as a lover.
There was a point in my life that any of these would’ve devastated me. Hell, taking the time to tally up all the things I’ve failed at – hope you’ve got all day, it’s quite the list – would’ve been enough to throw me back into another depression spiral.
After all: we’re all under an insane amount of pressure to “succeed”. We’re taught over and over again that if we’re not “successful”, then we’re just so much human detritus, castoffs, society’s forgotten children. We don’t “count” because we don’t meet some arbitrary and external standard.
But… whose standards, exactly? And why do we accept those standards as valid?
I mean, we’re trained in school that “success” lies in regurgitating the desired answers, regardless of whether we understand them, the process behind finding those answers, or even if those answers are correct. So, is there more success in being able to reproduce facts via rote memorization and getting a high grade, or in having pulled yourself up from an F to a C?
What about fame? Fortune? The Kardashians are rich and famous… and they were born to it. Does this mean that we’re a failure if we didn’t happen to be born to the right set of parents at the right time? ((And before anyone brings it up: yes, I’ve read Outliers too. I understand that birth order, parents and timing can offer advantages in life. That isn’t what we’re talking about here.)) Building up a profitable business? Michael Lindsay of iMedia Networks is undoubtedly a successful by that standard… except his business is to send all the ads for boner pills and Russian mail-order bride services that clog up your email every day. Is success measured by pure capitalism, even when your product damages the livelihood of others?
What if you’re only kind of successful? Kurt Cobain is hailed (rightly so) as a musical genius… but he never sold as many albums as Justin Bieber. Neither did the Beatles, for that matter. Are they any less successful than The Bieb? But then there’s the famous quote about The Velvet Underground: Only 1000 people bought their albums, but every single one of them started a band. Does that make The Velvet Underground more successful than Pitbull or Christina Aguilera?
Or for that matter, look at how we view sex and relationships. Is somebody a success just because he’s slept with hundreds of women? What about the man who only ever slept with one woman, but had three kids and a blissfully happy life with her? Is a woman a failure because she never gets married, instead choosing to devote her energies to running a profitable Fortune 500 company? What if she never has children but is a beloved teacher who helped hundreds of children reach their intellectual potential?
Perhaps it’s time to redefine what it means to be a “failure”.
The Fear of Failing
The idea of being a failure terrifies us. We live in a culture where being “right” is more important than just about anything else and being “successful” is a value-judgement rather than an adjective. In many ways, it’s a result of our Calvinist roots, where success is seen as being proof that you’re a good person. By the same token, being a failure is a moral shortcoming and evidence that you are inherently unworthy as an individual.
We’re taught early on that success means repeating the desired answers, following the mandated signposts and reading from the same scripts… even when those scripts and signposts have no meaning to our own lives. But if we don’t follow them… then we’ve done something horribly wrong. It’s a lesson that we’ve taken to heart… and it’s incredibly poisonous to our emotional well-being.
I’ve lost track of the number of emails I’ve gotten from people – men and women, both- who are inconsolable over the idea that they have somehow failed at life because they haven’t reached an arbitrary benchmark. They haven’t kissed somebody, had sex, gotten married, or even fallen in love and they’re terrified that the window is now closed to them and they will live with this mark of Cain on them for the rest of time.
Let’s take a look at one of my favorite punching bags: the traditional definitions of “masculinity”. I’ve gone on at length before about how fragile traditional manhood is – so brittle that the mere act of braiding hair is enough to produce anxiety in men. The classic rules of manhood make being male so precarious that being a man can be taken from you through sheer random chance. If a man loses his job because the company he works for goes under, he is in danger of being unable to provide for his family. He’s unable to find a job simply because of sheer numbers – there are 250 job-seekers to every available position. He is seen as a failure – as a provider, as a father, as a husband and as a man even though there is literally nothing he could have done to prevent it. Through no fault of his own, he is no longer “a man”.
There’s a cultural bias against failure, especially in personal relationships. Look at the amount of judgement and opprobrium directed at single mothers. Not a day goes by that politicians and religious leaders don’t excoriate unwed mothers as the cause of of every social ill ever to befall modern society. They’re called leeches, sluts, lazy… all for the crime of not being (gasp! shock!) married. The fact that they are trying to raise a child on their own, whether they’ve been divorced or never were married in the first place, is a sign of their inherent flaws; women, after all, are expected to get married and have kids and are regarded with a mix of suspicion, pity and scorn if they fail to do both. Preferably in that order.
Men get off lighter in society’s eyes when relationships fall apart, but take a failed relationship as a mark of personal failure. I know far too many divorced men who see the end of their relationship as a judgement on them personally; they are a failure because they were unable to keep their marriage together singlehandedly. They didn’t care enough, they weren’t “strong” enough, they didn’t try hard enough, they just weren’t a desirable enough person or able to inspire their partner to want to fight to keep things together. It shows that they just weren’t man enough to make things work.
The reason why we fear “failure” so much is that to be a failure – rather than to have failed, a subtle but critical difference – is that we regard it as a permanent state. Failure becomes a stain that we can never remove, no matter what else happens. That divorce means that you failed as a husband. Being a virgin into your late teens, your twenties or even thirties and beyond means that you are a failure as a man… never mind that you could still lose your virginity, it won’t count as though you lost it when, say, you were eight.
It doesn’t matter that failure is how we learn; we buy so much into the idea that we’re supposed to get it exactly right on the first try that not being able to do so is something to be ashamed of.
The Negativity Bias
Whenever a couple breaks up, we tend to say their relationship “failed”. But then, what would a “successful” relationship look like? We tend to regard almost all relationships – especially marriages – as lasting ’till death do us part, with anything else being an abject failure. So if the bride or groom were run down by a truck minutes after they said their I Do’s, would that make that relationship a “success”?
If a couple feel nothing but withering contempt for one another but stay married because their religion forbids divorce, is that a success? What does it mean then, when anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of all marriages in the US end in divorce? Are those all failures, regardless of circumstance? Is a marriage a failure if, after a divorce, the couple is able to remain close friends, sharing the duties and responsibilities of raising their children together?
Is it still a failure if 90% of the relationship is happy and only 10% wasn’t?
To put it another way: back in my early days as a fledgling PUA, I used to drive myself mercilessly when I would go out to bars. I would approach dozens of women every night like a goddamn machine, bam bam bam. As you might expect, I was horrible at it. It’s not terribly surprising – I had next to no experience with making cold approaches, only a theoretical working knowledge of what made attraction work and enough stage fright to make me literally choke trying to talk to women I was attracted to. Over time, I would start to improve – I was able to keep women’s interest longer, move them around the venue, even get the occasional (legit) phone number… but one bad blow-out would ruin my night. In fact, let’s say that in a night of thirteen approaches, even if I would collect four phone numbers, when the previous night, I had gotten zero. Even with that level of improvement I would tend to go home feeling lower than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut. Why? Because those 9 other rejections had more emotional “weight” than those four successes.
So it tends to go with failure: we overlook the positives in favor of the negatives. That relationship that was happy for the most part, that even allowed for you to be friends with somebody afterwards? It’s still a “failure”. Why is it so easy to ignore the positives in favor of the negatives?
Well, as it turns out, it’s because of what’s known as the Negativity Bias. Simply put: we pay more attention and give more credence to the negative. Our brains react much more strongly to stimuli we perceive as negative, painful or unpleasant. Much like with our sense of fear, the negativity bias is an evolutionary development meant to keep us alive; being more highly attuned to negative feelings meant that we’re better able detect and react to danger. Unfortunately, what was necessary to keep us alive back in the days when we lived in fear of saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and cave bears doesn’t play well with our capacity for abstract reasoning; what used to be a survival technique is the same thing that makes it harder for us to dismiss the feeling of failure. When I say that our failures weigh heavier on our minds, I’m not using a rhetorical flourish; negative thoughts affect us five times more than positive ones. This ratio causes an interference effect – it’s harder to appreciate the positives of something when there’s a negative associated with it as well.
This is why negative opinions and thoughts seem so much more “valid” than positive ones – your brain pays more attention to it and gives it more statistical weight. It’s why negative thought patterns are so hard to banish and why negative comments so quickly overwhelm a comments section on blogs and forums. And it’s why we are so quick to dismiss all the good experiences with our partners before the break-up and to label ourselves “failures”.
So how do we deal with this?
What Are Your Standards?
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Getting back to something I mentioned earlier: I’m a failure as a comic publisher. I wrote, illustrated and published a graphic novel called Miracles Have A Price back in 2003. It was well-received critically but to say that it didn’t burn up the sales charts is… something of an understatement. I printed 3000 copies, sold less than 300 through Diamond and hand-sold about as many at conventions. The remaining 2400 sat in a closet for seven years before the majority ended up being recycled. The comic itself was repurposed into an online comic that similarly sunk into relative obscurity and was eventually shut down.
By any reasonable measurement, this was a monumental failure on my part. I sunk thousands of dollars and years of my life into a project that, in the end, I will never break even on, never mind turn a profit. At best, it’s vaguely remembered by friends I foisted copies onto.
If you look at it another way though, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. I’d long held the dream of being a comic artist, of going into my local store and seeing copies of my graphic novel on the shelves… and I made that happen. I did something that people only talk about. I got picked up by Diamond for nationwide distribution on my first try – something that’s incredibly difficult, especially for a self-published indie comic from a no-name creator. It opened the door for me and put me in contact with many creators whose work I admire, who I’m friends with to this day. By that standard, it was a triumph; I can note it down as a huge success.
Out of those two points of view, do you want to guess which standard I’m going to go with? Yup, I’m going to go with the one that blatantly massages my ego and validates the effort I put into it. That’s the great thing about being me: I get to decide what standards matter to me.
That’s how it works for all of us. We all get to decide what metrics we want to apply to our lives, instead of trying to meet arbitrary definitions of success that have nothing to do with us or what we want or value. My brother is a literal rocket scientist and Olympic level athlete with multiple degrees who owns an engineering firm and enters triathalons for fun. If I compared my life to his, I could be seen as being a failure, especially as I struggle to run a 5k in under 40 minutes. Except what represents success to him is functionally meaningless to me (well, except for the fact that I’m proud of him) just as what represents success to me has little value to him. Does society value some metrics more than others? Yes… for limited definitions of “society”. Value isn’t a universal constant; some people are going to be far more thrilled to meet George R. R. Martin than they are to meet LeBron James. Personally, I’d rather hang out with Patton Oswalt or Chris Hardwick or listen to Rob Paulsen and Maurice LeMarche swap stories than go backstage with Pitbull or One Direction.
This is why we get to define what success means for ourselves – just as we get to define what “failure” means. Some metrics are useful and relevant to us. Some are not. We have to be careful in choosing how we define success and failure; after all, success doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. You could define success as being popular and hate the way you have to sell out your values and dignity to get there. Snooki and Pauly D are popular… is that the path you’d be willing to follow to popularity? If you want to be a singer, would you rather perform to more intimate audiences with songs that have meaning to you, or are you OK with being a puppet, altering your identity to what other people say you should be and singing songs calculated to be as catchy – and disposable – as possible?
You can decide that success means being “the best” at something… or you can decide that success means just managing to accomplish it in the first place. Going from being unable to sew to being able to put together a dress is an impressive accomplishment, even if you’re never going to be featured on the runways in Milan.
To take it back to dating advice: many men who get into the pick-up scene define success as banging as many 9s1 and 10s as possible. OK… which is going to make you happier, forgettable to mediocre to sex with a bunch of 9s or amazing, letters-to-Penthouse sex with just one 6 or 7?
Clearly I have my opinions on the matter… but those are just my opinions. They have only as much validity to you as you want to give them. If sleeping with somebody who makes your friends jealous – even at the cost of a better sexual connection – is more important to you, then by all means, go for it. But you aren’t going to be happy for very long.
This includes those artificial deadlines we set for ourselves. Which is more important to you: having lost your virginity as early as possible, or having lost it at all? Which will make you happier, a rushed fumbling mess that just gets it over with, or something deliberate at a time and pace that you’re able to fully appreciate? Yes, society lionizes men who have sex earlier in life… but what does that mean to you specifically? Why should strangers get to dictate what should be important to you, especially when those standards may be impossible to achieve?
I, like most people, have a long line of relationships that, for one reason or another, didn’t work out. Some of them were failures – we were fundamentally incompatible, I wasn’t able to handle a relationship, she was emotionally abusive – but others weren’t. I’m still great friends with many of my exes; to me, that is a mark of success, even though the romantic relationship didn’t last. And even in the relationships that did fail, there was still good that came out of them – if I learned from them and became a better, wiser person, then in the end, there was success to be found there too. I may have failed… but I wasn’t a failure.
You can let other people tell you what you’re supposed to find important… or you can decide on it for yourself.
You and you alone get to decide what it means to be a success… and why even in failing, you’re not a failure.
- Again: I can’t stand rating women on a numeric scale; I’m using the PUA’s vernacular to make a point [↩]