The art of failure

Success is never final, failure is never fatal. This is one of those motherhood statements we seldom question, because they have been pounded into our craniums when we were kids, by parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers and other authority figures.

After school and compulsory military service, I went straight to work as my family didn’t have enough money to provide me a university education. At that time, I also started my own extensive although haphazard reading programme, believing it would make me as well-prepared in the working world as any university graduate. One book I took to heart was Napoleon Hill’s The Laws of Success (I kept the well-thumbed volume for years but have since donated to the neighbourhood library’s section of unwanted books that other readers can take).

I tried my best to learn by heart these “laws”, to make them a part of my outlook and conduct. I sincerely believed then that if I followed the laws closely, it would only be a matter of time before I became a millionaire, with a luxury home, sports car, chalet in Switzerland, and, oh yes, a beauty-queen wife.

But the world is perverse – the more I tried to practise the principles of success (not just Napoleon Hill’s, but a gaggle of other noisy gurus as well, including Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie), the more failures I experienced.

There’s nothing wrong with Napoleon Hill and his Laws. What is wrong is that he, and others of his kind, did not take into account the condition of the readers they are targeting. These laws, strategies and principles of success are inflexible commandments, which require superhuman resolve to carry them out. And the writers assume that readers are uniform in their capacity to respond.

Consider some of these commandments: Practise self-control (Lesson no. 8). Do more than you are paid for (Lesson no. 9). Use imagination to turn ideas into reality (Lesson no. 6).

If there’s one thing I lack in life, it’s self-control. Worse, I don’t even have the self-control to practise self-control. In a word, my brain wasn’t etched with an electronic circuitry such that someone could pour in all the commandments (“algorithms” is what techie people call them) that automatically instruct my body to speak, gesture and move in the correct direction towards success.

In between reading the book, I was working long hours as a wage clerk in a dinghy waste-paper factory in Liu Fang Road, Jurong, and trying to survive on $270 plus some overtime pay each month (1973). I was also lonely and horny but didn’t have the energy, time and financial resources to go dating or visit brothels. And my health was’t good because of the dust-shrouded environment, the poor-quality canteen food, and the lack of sleep and lack of exercise.

So, although part of me was willing to have a go at practising the laws of success, most of me simply found them a distraction, having already more than enough difficulties and challenges to handle.

After all the years eating the kaya-toast of hard labour and drinking the black kopi of bitterness, I realised that while being infatuated with the mantra of success and positive thinking, I was actually practising the art of failure throughout! The evidence in my life is clear: I don’t live in an outsized condo, drive an outsized SUV, and date babes with outsized boobs. I’m still somewhere near the bottom of the corporate food chain, after a half-century of grind.

But failure does have its occasional compensations, though. I’ve learnt to be more laidback, and to change my perspective so that good health and being fit for life becomes more important than being fit for success and career advancement. I go for regular runs and hopefully one day, I could compete in the marathon (or half-marathon), and complete it! But, again practising the art of failure, I could do no more than cover 10km – even after 10 years of running.

Thankfully, I have given up envying my former classmates who are far richer, more successful in their careers. I now hitch my wagon to an easier-paced, less jumpy lifestyle. But I still like to indulge in a book or movie on perseverance and success. Just yesterday, I watched Men of Honour, from an $8 secondhand DVD I bought.

The movie, made in 2000, is based on the true story of Carl Brashear (portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a black man who grew up in a dirt-poor farm in Kentucky. He joined the US Navy, aspiring to be a Master Diver, something unheard of for non-whites in the racist days of the 1950s. In an early scene, when Brashear first reports for duty, he is told that the only future for a black man in the Navy is to become either a cook, an officer’s valet (personal servant) or be kicked out.

Brashear overcomes heart-rending difficulties to qualify as Diver, and then, after losing one leg because of a freak accident, goes on to become Master Diver, the pinnacle of the profession.

The movie left me breathless. But I didn’t feel embarrassed nor depressed that I lack the iron will of Brashear to strive for success – something I would have felt a decade ago. I merely found the story entertaining, and its message heartening enough to chew over in my mind.

These days, I find failure comfortable, accommodating and forgiving. It gives me time to have fun, sleep late, and, best of all, to practise meditation and collect my mind for the terrible bardo – life’s final transition – to another existence.

– December 25, 2008

Note: Bardo – a Tibetan term  –  is the intermission or transition phase, a kind of holding area while your consciousness waits to enter a new life form. If you have extremely good karma (most unlikely for most of us), you may be reborn as a human again. This is fortunate because, according to the Scriptures, human life contains the right mix of pain and happiness to motivate you to seek liberation. If you’re reborn as a god, you will have too much of a good time to think of your own salvation; and if you’re reborn in hell, the terrible pain will be too distracting to think of anything else. 

Egoist looks at Life  | Growing up under the British crown  |  Meditation retreat

About Myself  |  Contents

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