On Failure – How to Succeed at Defeat
(The School of Life 2022)
In 2008, Alain de Botton was one of a team of writers and educators who founded The School of Life. Based in centres across the World, The School of Life , offers an emotional education focusing in particular on the issues of Work and Relationships. In an interview with de Botton said:
The idea is to challenge traditional universities and reorganise knowledge, directing it towards life, and away from knowledge for its own sake. In a modest way, it’s an institution that is trying to give people what universities should I think always give them: a sense of direction and wisdom for their lives with the help of culture.
Alain de Botton: I would advise a friend to travel alone (metkere.com/en)”. metkere.com. (5 August 2008)
Some years ago I joined de Botton for the launch of his book An Emotional Education. It was an extraordinary experience of honesty, pragmatism and wisdom. I was surprised by the number of people present in the space – most of who were under 35 ! If you have time here is a flavour of his approach –
Since then I have become rather captivated ( and enlarged) by The School. I love the way ideas are communicated and how they land for the listener or reader. The books are (probably) written by a Team but the style is clear and always well organised. Simple but never lacking sophistication, nuance or some provisionality.
I have often commended this work to my students at Sarum College (https://www.sarum.ac.uk/) as a model of good theological and spiritual communication. It’s clear, concise, easy to access even when the subject matter being explored is complex and dense. Books from the school tend to be shorter but well organised in easily digestible sections and chapters. Put simply – there is in this teaching and expression an intelligence to the processing of information and the sharing of it in an accessible and stimulating way. One wonders what theology might look like if writers took this approach to expressing complexity and abstraction ?
Here is what the book claims about itself!
‘we spend a lot of time thinking about how to succeed, but we’d end up so much wiser and calmer if we learnt how to cope better with a more likely scenario of failure. This book is packed with dignified, sensible, kindly suggestions about how to approach failure: how to deal with friends, how to cope with enemies, how to endure regret, how to pick ourselves up, how to accept ourselves despite the flaws – and how to endure and thrive in new, less than ideal circumstances’
The book is divided into two parts.The first part – ‘real world failure’ – has 20 short reflections and the second part – ‘the fear of failure’ contains 13 sections. The book is easy to handle, clearly printed and has a number of illuminating and stimulating pictures.
Part of the skill of the text is to normalise the reality of failure in all of our lives making it easy to own up-to and identify with as a number of examples are explored and described. Why is it that we take a dislike to some people and never give them a chance? What are we to do with that feeling of envy especially of those who seem to effortlessly stride through life succeeding at all that they put their hand to? How might we nurture good friendships which are real, life-giving and dependable? What is our relationship to time?
In the book we are invited to consider who we are and how we decide on who we might regard as heroes or heroines. Equally we are challenged into thinking about who are our villains – those people who we refuse to allow out of the box firmly closed and marked – bad person. We are of course all of us a range of opposing things, good and bad, impatient and kind, loving and annoying. It is part of maturity at all stages of our life to develop a moral complexity which helps develop and deepen our mind and deepen our relationships. Throughout this generous philosophy we are encouraged not to let ourselves off the hook!
We have to atone, we have to take responsibility, we have to despise what we have done and we have to apologise to those we have hurt. But we do not – in the end – have to be without kindness for ourselves.
Central to this narrative is the concept of Harmatia. The term is often said to depict the flaws or defects of a character and portraying these as the reason of a potential downfall.
At this stage you might wonder why on earth you should pick this book up and read it given its fundamental challenges to some of the darker aspects of our personality with which we might struggle. These may be the cause of deep unhappiness and even dysfunction. However the gentleness of the invitation into reflexivity opens up new windows and vistas into our life story.
There are always things that we might want to shift and change – so read this book with a pencil and paper and allow it to ask you questions which might be transformative for your well-being and wholeness. Better still read in with a group of friends!
Of course none of this is easy – the book leaves us with this challenge – of being a good failure !
those afraid of failure and those who have failed have much to offer one another. The failed are living proof that failure can be endured – while the faithful are an ideal constituency in which the failed can practice their wisdom and deliver solace. We waste far too much time scaling or dreaming of the peaks of worldly success. Now is the moment to turn our attention to becoming those unlikely, but much more important, members of society: good failures. These are people who know how to be kind, sympathetic, gentle, humorous, humble, grateful and imaginative in the face of disaster –and who are therefore always ready to lend a hand to fellow vulnerable ailing humans who have been damned by fate and too, for now, struggle to remember any reasons to live. That will be redemption and success properly worthy of the word.
I find myself in the fortunate position of being able to have a very wide range of conversations with a variety of people who hold rich and sometimes complicated perspectives on religion and religious practice. I find myself, at times, agreeing with some of those who have come to the conviction that religion is not good for you and certainly not a force for good in our society. We would do well to explore the roots of this both in ourselves and others as we find ways of building back for good in these post-pandemic months. What this insightful and difficult book has opened up and reminded me for is that some of that change begins with self.
Becoming aware of paradox and contradiction – finding ways of authentically listening and connecting with our vulnerabilities and complexities as human beings might be a part of spiritual wisdom that can enable us to flourish and in our flourishing help others to thrive.