I have been thinking a lot about the dichotomy of success and failure lately. The culture we’re in pushes us to be striving, at all times, toward successes, plural, in perpetuity. A failure can only be framed as a learning opportunity to achieve greater success in the future. And a success is a stepping stone to a future, greater, success. As Arthur Brooks writes, “success is Sisyphean”.
The frame of success/failure feels particularly binding when you are trying something new or challenging yourself in a new way. Or even when you just want to be a happy healthy person.
On one side there is an obsession in looking for what’s right, the correct choice, the perfect plan; an obsession with success, with what is the best, what is perfect. The other side is the fear of being wrong, of failing, of not being perfect. When the obsession and pressure to succeed and the fear of failure are in all your pursuits (hustles), it can very easily lead to burnout.
Much has been said about how people only share their best selves, their most successful selves, on social media, so “don’t compare yourself to the things you see.” But right now, in the age of a pandemic that forced all our interactions online, it is more difficult to avoid. And we have rare opportunities to share our least successful selves.
Now we engage with a large portion (if not all) of our social circles digitally, video calls, social media, chats. We are forced to curate our communication, choosing how and what we present to even our closest friends. We’re always implicitly comparing and striving, and we avoid sharing our challenges. The pattern of comparison and perfectionism feels like the default.
We struggle to share our own struggles, at least without framing them as ‘part of a journey’ or a ‘learning opportunity’. We have to make meaning from them, instantly, for an audience of our social circle or colleagues. And if failure is just a meaning-making moment for future success, how do you engage with the feelings of frustration, loss, fatigue, and upset in the moment?
The opportunity to share failings and challenges, ranging from fun curiosities to the loss of a job, is hugely important to meaningful relationships, and it is hugely important to our own self-image. We need to talk about the things we might be ashamed of (a bad review, a crisis of confidence, an aspiration you think you don’t deserve) and see that they are normal or validated or funny or sad or worth pursuing or trying again. In close relationships, phone calls and happy hour drinks, you are safe to share the things that make you feel most vulnerable. Sharing the hard things with friends helps process the difficulties, figure out what to do next, build bonds; even if there is no meaning made.
I’m finding that I need to let go of the success/failure framework more and more, and that I need to find things where success/failure is irrelevant. Community, investing in friendships that aren’t related to ‘networking,’ is essential but also separate from success metrics. And I need to do more things that have no bearing on metrics of success, no place on a resume, no reason to be publicized to the world at large. I need to address the shame of not reaching an arbitrary, self-imposed goal, and I want to be able to fail sometimes without having it be meaningful for my future self.
There are things I strive for, there are things I work to get better at, there are goals I want to reach. But for many things the frame of success/failure is detrimental. Creative work, risk taking, trying new things, the joy of being among friends, trying a new recipe that doesn’t quite work, being very bad at bowling or putt putt golf, going to concerts and dinners and plays and drinks.
What does it look like to have success metrics be irrelevant? How can we step away from framing everything we do as success, productive, braggable, sharable? Or can we reframe to have a success-state without a failure-state? What if this too is just another way to look for a perfect choice, perfect approach? To protect myself from failure?
And is this piece participating in sharing the sharing-success-striving culture? MAYBE. Am I telling you how I feel like I failed? NOPE. Aren’t there times when people have to constantly strive for success all the time, make their hobbies side hustles? PROBABLY. We live in a place where you need money to live, so yeah, sometimes we have to work, successfully, all the time.
But there is joy in the risk of what you don’t know, in the process, in being okay with not succeeding. You do not need to be the best, you do not even need to be the best version of yourself.
So even with my goals and striving, things that I can be proud of and write on a resume, a reframe is needed. Success is trying the thing. Success is doing what you can with the circumstances. Success is taking the opportunities you have and not begrudging the opportunities you don’t. Success is celebrating the milestones. Success is letting go of perfect to explore other possibilities. And it doesn’t have to always build toward a social cachet or a next job or opportunity.
These things might lead to more traditional metrics of success in the end, but that is not, cannot be, the reason to do them. I cannot enjoy something or be creative because I’m trying to outdo someone else, or win, or brag about it. I have to let go of whether something outside of my control (weather, injury, illness, schedule conflicts, etc.) can make it a “failure.” I cannot enjoy the process if the outcome defines whether it was worth it.
The point is there is no right or perfect way to be (or to fail). I’m learning over time that you get to define what feels like success to you, or how you engage with the very idea of success. You choose what is important in your life.
I think part of why I’ve been thinking about this so much is the slow return to something resembling normal. We’re all seeing more public outcomes. I’ve been asking myself about the value of my hobbies. We’re all getting back to being busy, to in person activities that aren’t cancelled, dressing in ‘hard pants’, and learning to small-talk again. We’re all getting back to things that feel new, even if they aren’t new.
We’re going to feel like we have to share accomplishments from the past era, to feel compelled to compare ourselves with others. We don’t have to.
Your answer to “What did you do during lockdown?” can be honest, it can be a change in topic, or it can be a brag if you want. But we’re going to be different, not perfect. And it’s not a success or a failure. It’s just new. Let’s see where it takes us.