Useful Concepts – #1 – Succeeding While You’re Failing

There are concepts that I find so useful that I would like them to be circulating more widely.

For two of these useful concepts, I rely on Adam Phillips, the prolific essayist and psychotherapist who is responsible for some of the best book-titles in recent publishing history – On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; On Flirtation; Going Sane. But he also makes some insightful points about success and failure.

It’s a commonplace of popular psychology to analyse instances of failure as self-sabotage. That is the idea that the person failing is not only complicit in his own failure but somehow orchestrating it, in order to satisfy a psychological need below the surface. In other words, the failing not only need to cope with their failure but also need to come to grips with the fact that they are to blame for it.

But Phillips has a different take on this. First of all, he establishes that we all contain multiple personalities. This isn’t a reference to multiple personality disorder, not even necessarily to Dr. Freud’s idea that the self is made up of ego, id and super-ego. It’s more that:

“our internal worlds are more like a novel than a monologue. Each character, or part of ourselves, has different projects, and different criteria of success…”

What is important then, is to contain these internal multitudes and not let any one character dominate the internal discussion of what success would feel like.

…because our different selves have different projects, success and failure are inextricable; success for one self can feel like failure for another, and vice versa. We are always doing at least two things at once…

In other words, we are always failing and succeeding at the same time and a good question to ask ourselves may be: while I am failing at this, what is the other thing I am succeeding at?

But ultimately Phillips wants us to transcend the success / failure distinction entirely. He suggests that as a society we have become too fascinated with the idea of success – and a too narrowly defined version of it at that.

But there are people around (…) for whom success itself is a distraction, but for whom there is no language available to describe a good life free of success. We police ourselves with purposes. Our ambitions – our ideals and success stories that lure us into the future – can too easily become ways of not living in the present (…). Believing in the future can be a great deadener. Perhaps we have been too successful at success and failure, and should now start doing something else.




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