Most of us have experienced a lot of failures. Probably we feel bad about those. Most of us have some sort of perfectionist tendency. Probably we feel this is a good thing, since it spurs us toward success.
But maybe we should look upon ourselves differently, viewing failure more positively than perfectionism.
Here's excerpts from Oliver Burkeman's book, "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking." Dome is a reference to the failed Millennium Dome, built as a monument to the dawn of the year 2000.
There is an openness and honesty in failure, a down-to-earth confrontation with reality that is lacking at the higher altitudes of success.
To achieve something impressive -- as might have happened had the dome ever become, as Tony Blair predicted, 'a beacon to the world' -- is necessarily to erect a kind of barrier between yourself and everyone else. To be impressed by something, meanwhile, implies feeling yourself to be in the presence of something different from, and better than, yourself.
Failure, by contrast, collapses these boundaries, demonstrating the fallibility of those who might otherwise try to present themselves as immune to defeat. It cuts people down to human size. The vulnerability revealed by failure can nurture empathy and communality.
...Still it can be exceptionally hard to adopt this attitude towards your own failures. As Christopher Kayes' notion of 'goalodicy' suggests, we too often make our goals into parts of our identities, so that failure becomes an attack on how we are.
Or, as Albert Ellis understood, we alight upon some desired outcome -- being happily married, for example, or finding fulfilling work -- and elevate it into one we feel we must attain, so that failing at it becomes not just sad but catastrophic. To use the Buddhist language of attachment and non-attachment, we become attached to success.
All these counterproductive ways of thinking about failure manifest themselves most acutely in the phenomenon of perfectionism.
This is one of those traits that many people seem secretly, or not so secretly, proud to possess, since it hardly seems like a character flaw -- yet perfectionism, at bottom, is a fear-driven striving to avoid the experience of failure at all costs. At its extremes, it is an exhausting and permanently stressful way to live.
(There is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide, research suggests, than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide.)
To fully embrace the experience of failure, not merely to tolerate it as a stepping-stone to success, is to abandon this constant straining never to put a foot wrong. It is to relax.
'Downfall', writes the American Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg, 'brings us to the ground, facing the nitty-gritty, things as they are with no glitter. Success cannot last forever. Everyone's time runs out.' She goes on: 'Achievement solidifies us. Believing we are invincible, we want more and more.'
To see and feel things as they really are, 'we have to crash. Only then can we drop through to a more authentic self. Zen transmits its legacy from this deeper place. It is a different kind of failure: the Great Failure, a boundless surrender. Nothing to hold on to, and nothing to lose.'
...Her [J.K. Rowling] words chime with many of the insights of the Stoics, the Buddhists, and others into the benefits of negativity, and they are worth quoting at length:
I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale.
An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.
The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure that I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea there was going to be what the press has since represented as a fairytale resolution.
I had no idea how far the tunnel extended... so why do I talk about the benefits of failure?
Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
... I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive. [Failure] gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations.
...Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.