Failing to learn from failure

by Callum Watts

The desire to turn failure into a learning opportunity is often generous, and an important way of dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. I first became aware of it as a frequent trope in start-up culture, where, influenced by practices in software development where trying things out and failing is the quickest way to get to something of value, we are constantly subject to exhortations to “fail fast and fail forward”. Many workplaces now lionise (whether sincerely or not is another matter) the importance of learning through failure, and of creating environments that encourage this.

I’ve noticed the idea that failure should be re-conceptualised primarily as a source of learning appearing in many other contexts. Self-help encourages us to think of misfortunes as opportunities for personal development. The peculiar fact that people like Jordan Belfort have become popular figures in the self-help/motivational speaker circuit is striking, but even outside the realm of obvious moral failings, we are encouraged to think of our own tragedies as opportunities for redemption and growth. In the face of covid-19, people talk about what they have learnt from a year in lockdown, how it might have improved them as, and I expect there will be plenty more of this sort of thinking to come in the next couple of years. This though, can become a manic compulsion, which has a distorting effect on our ability to understand the reality of our existential condition. The desire to find in every grief an opportunity, forgets the inescapably tragic dimension of life, and in doing so misses something profound.

On the face of it, it seems like many things that happen that are just terrible. Disease, death, suffering; these things do irreparable harm and don’t seem to offer any redemption. But, adversity can be a chance to learn. Personal growth becomes a kind of redemption from the difficult parts of existence. We’re encouraged to take solace in the fact that we can grow from these experiences, and become fuller and wiser people from them. And to some extent this must be right; if you believe that everything in life is a dead loss, it surely will become the case that you miss out on many opportunities to learn something. This attitude is also connected to our ideas of regret. If everything that happens to us is an opportunity to grow and learn, then regret starts to make less sense. How could one regret events which were the very things which have shaped us into the fuller people we are today? Under this style of thought, living with no regrets is not about living in a way where you never take risks or have bad experiences, but rather living as if every hurt suffered is something you can capitalise upon for self-development. We can proudly say that we regret nothing, because all the things that have happened to us becomes material to be spun into personal growth.

I think this attitude is especially common in secular post-Christian societies that maintain an optimism about the possibility of personal redemption. This combines with a popular culture and social life that tends to shy away from themes of suffering to create a particularly sanitised version of human life. This perspective is not the norm though. Many cultures, including the ancient Greeks, have seen history as cyclical, not as a continuous journey of betterment, but rather an unending cycle of growth and death, beauty and ugliness. Nietzsche deplored the optimism the Christianised attitude towards progress had bought with it, and worried that it devalued important parts of what made life beautiful and meaningful. And we don’t have to look back in history, Buddhism, which has half a billion adherents, starts with the idea that suffering is an inescapable part of normal life. Importantly neither of these traditions seems to be fundamentally bleak, the current Dalai Lama is famous for, amongst other qualities, his sense of humour and capacity to find joy in things.

On the other hand, the attitude which tries to run away from suffering by converting it into teachable moments can be really damaging. Firstly, it is psychically very taxing, many situations are so unpleasant that seeing the good in them takes a huge amount of effort. For someone already suffering, this may make things harder. Secondly, it can encourage in us a kind of false consciousness. Some small nicety or learning may be found in the face of calamity, but weighted in the balance against the pain of losing someone you love, it seems trivial, and any effort to make it seem otherwise is likely to require that we lie to ourselves about how we actually feel. This could deprive of us of an important outlet for our feelings. Thirdly it can create feelings of guilt and inadequacy in people who are unable to see the positive side of some event or experience. And finally, by insisting on seeing a glass half full, we actually might be failing to learn one thing which can be learnt from disaster, that frequently life is tragic, in the sense of containing irredeemable loss and pain, and that being able to accept this cosmic injustice is a sign of maturity. Without this insight much of art becomes really difficult to fully grasp. In other words, the desperate needs to see silver linings everywhere makes both the truth about ourselves and the world harder for us to see.

This though is not a counsel of despair. The fact that some of life, maybe even quite a bit of life, is irreparably bad does not require us to believe that the human condition itself is fundamentally a negative one. In fact, it might even suggest the possibility that some parts of it may be inescapably good. By acknowledging that some things are just plain terrible, we escape the tendency to try and justify pain and suffering in terms of the good things it might produce. Similarly, then, we can confront joy and bliss without the need to put them in the balance against the more tragic parts of life. We can just allow them to exist incommensurably next to each other, impossible to reconcile, yet both inescapably real.