Sunday, December 25, 2005

Failure and Unhappiness

First of all, Happy Holidays!
Despite the title of this essay, I mean it. In fact, I think I have a positive message to offer today. I want to discuss a pessimistic premise in Epictetus’ eudaemonism. Epictetus believes that our desire for externals, any externals, dooms us to frustration and failure, since externals are not in our control. And if our desires are frustrated and disappointed, we must live troubled and unhappy lives.

There are two obvious lines of objection to Epictetus’ pessimism with respect to externals. One simply denies that failure & disappointment are inevitable. Some people seem to be conspicuously successful in their pursuit of externals, and are not unhappy with their success. Granted such success is not extremely common. Many try for the brass ring and fail, but is their failure more the result of the elusiveness of the brass ring or more the result of their lack of skills & determination? Is the target then to blame if the archer shoots poorly?

Let us leave that question to another time, and consider the other part of Epictetus’ premise, the part that says if we fail to achieve the external we are pursuing we will be troubled and unhappy. This claim is clearly a fundamental motive of the Stoic abandonment of externals, but it lacks, may I say, lacks any self-evidence. We are all, I assume, familiar with failing to achieve goals we’ve set for ourselves and pursued earnestly. But our reaction to these “failures” is in fact quite varied and nuanced. Distress and despair and unhappiness is certainly one kind of reaction, typically seen in immature adults & children who have less experience of worldly successes & failures. But amongst mature adults other sorts of reactions are quite possible and even probable.

May I illustrate with a story from my own childhood about learning to deal with failure. When I was fifteen Roger Bannister’s four minute mile was not ancient history. I loved to run and decided I too would train myself to be a competitive miler. My first timed mile on the track was a very disappointing 6:24, but I was completely untrained, so I discounted it and set out over the summer and fall on a rigorous training regimen. Diet, exercise, a proper training schedule and eventually even a proper coach. I targeted the late March track meet at our high school as the first solid test of my improvement. On race day I was healthy and ran my best race ever—and lost in the qualifer! I came in third in my heat with a pathetic 5:49. I watched as two kids pulled away from me effortlessly on the last two laps and I could do nothing to reel them back in. Try as I might, I just was not fast enough. My coach candidly agreed. My mechanics were good, my fitness was good. I was just not able to bust out more than two 1:15 quarters. I was almost at full sprint at that pace.

I was of course devastated. But I resolved to try again. Five weeks later at another high school meet, the same results. Four weeks, another meet, another loss in the qualifiers. After that third meet, the coach, otherwise not a great human being, decided to sit down and talk to me. He said, “Look, you’ve learned a very important thing today. Some people are naturally gifted at some things and some aren’t. I’ve watched you train and you’ve trained as hard as anyone I could. You just aren’t built to be competitive miler. Maybe try distance or cross-country, but miling is just going to be an exercise in frustration for you.”

That was that. I had failed to become a competitive miler. Beyond question. And that failure did not feel good. But as I thought about what the coach had told me, I realized he was right. Each of us has different things we are naturally talented at. Try as I might, I was never going to be a fast miler. If I persisted in trying to compete in that arena, I was going to be very unhappy. But I could not know that about myself apriori, before the fact, could I? So I had to try, and try hard, and find out. And that was exactly the path of self-discovery I pursued. The training had done me no harm, and the competition had taught me a big lesson in life. I now understood that trying and failing was the only way in many cases to know what I was good at and not good at. Holding back and “not entering any contest at which I am not invincible”, as Epictetus recommends, would have been a sure recipe for discovering and achieving nothing.

Since failing to be a competitive miler, I have experinced other failures in pursuing externals. How did I react to them? For the most part positively, so long as I was sure that the reason I did not succeed was not that did try hard enough. That kind of failure provokes the distress and unhappy Epictetus predicts. But in general, failure has been more of any invaluable tool of self-discovery than a recipe for unhappiness. It has guided me toward the life that was right for me.

I have learned that it is important to pick your goals ( externals) very carefully, and plan your goal-seeking thoroughly, and persist with it resolutely. But a priori we can never be certain we have the right goals. What looked like something ( or someone ) that would be good for me sometimes turned out not to be. And what I thought I could do well at, sometimes I could only do poorly. So those goals needed to be abandoned and better ones put in their place. The whole process of trial & error in our pursuit of externals is not something that should or need drive us to despair & unhappiness. We fail in order to succeed. We fail in order to discover what things and what kind of life is truly good for us. We achieve happiness & success after many necessary failures & disappointments.

Epictetus’ prediction that pursuing externals will lead inevitably lead to failure & unhappiness was one of his biggest errors.


Blogger Bill Vallicella said...

Merry Xmas, Phil.

No doubt you have a passage or several in mind. I would need to look at them to assess your comments.

I wonder if there isn't a more charitable way of reading E. Could he perhaps be read as preaching a doctrine of nonattachment to the fruits of actions? In other words: enter the arena, pursue the prize, play the game; but realize that true happiness cannot result from winning. Compete, but maintain an attitude of inner detachment from the outcome.

Indeed, only in the arena do we find out whether and to what extent we have achieved any inner detachment.

I enjoyed the running story. There is no substitute for talent. A wise man would be able to take as much pleasure from the other guy's winning as his winning.

1:29 PM  

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