“But a man soon discovers that everything depends upon his being useful, not in his own opinion, but in the opinion of others; and so he tries his best to make that favorable impression upon the world, to which he attaches such a high value.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)
Writing about this idea was taken from Cheryl Strayed’s List of Writing Prompts that I found while reading Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, which is on my Must Read Book List. I love the open endedness of this prompt because it allows me to take this wherever I want. This post is going to be more personal than my other posts, but I think the lessons are solid and should be shared.
So if I’m going to write about how I found my way back, then I need to write about where I was and how I got lost in the first place.
A few days ago, I was cleaning out some old drawers in my childhood room that haven’t been opened for years. I found a little certificate that said “Congratulations on reading 143 books in one year!”
I was immediately thrown back to my childhood. Images of little Chris just reading like mad. I remember my mom bringing me to the library every week with a laundry basket that we would fill up with books. I loved reading so much, but somewhere between kindergarten and senior year, I lost it. I actually hated it. I hated it so much that I would do anything to avoid reading. I carried this with me to college and I even majored in engineering just so I could read the minimum number of books to get a degree. (That wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big one).
Flashforward to today. I love reading again. I read every day and it’s always the highlight of my day. Part of my personality is creating my own version of whatever I’m consuming and now I read so much that I want to write a book of my own one day. Actually multiple books! Now, I have a blog and I’m taking steps every single day to make my books a reality.
The best part, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, is that I feel connected to who I authentically am and an inner peace that could not be found anywhere else. The ability to exercise my highest faculties and dedicate my will and time to projects that reflect the parts of me that I make me proud is, for lack of a better term, God’s work.
This doesn’t just stop with writing. This also goes for making music! I used to make music every single day. Every chance I had to strum my guitar I would take. I completely identified with it, but somewhere in college I lost that too. I felt like making music was taking me away from the things I “should” be doing and that the talents and passion for music was a distraction and a burden to wrestle with. I felt guilty making music and wrong for wanting to make it a huge part of my life. But today, I am back. I make more music than ever and it sounds way better too! Now, I put most of my stuff on my YouTube channel!
I lost myself. I lost who I was. I rejected who I wanted to be.
I took a step back. I found him again. I love this person and can see what he has to bring to the table.
I had to take a step back for about a year to sift through and separate the wheat from the chaff. I had to accept that there are ways of being and knowledge I couldn’t ignore.
I lost my way because I was tired of doing “what was right” and I wanted to do “whatever I wanted.” My dumbass at the time couldn’t even clearly articulate what it was that I wanted.
I ignored the knowledge of good and evil. I completely subscribed to nihilism and hedonism. (While they are formidable philosophies, they are not comprehensive enough to lead a healthy life). I had my head so far up my ass I couldn’t recognize sunlight.
But then, I saw how it affected the people who looked up to me. I saw my students started thinking along the same lines as me. I saw the ones who look up to me copy what I said and did and how much damage they would create with those ways of thinking. It was disheartening, but it didn’t really get to me until I saw it in my sister. I saw how much she was copying what I did and how I think, and it scared the living daylights out of me. All the damage she created for herself (while less than the damage I caused) casted a bright light on the weight of my actions. I saw an iota of the impact that we have and how we truly cannot image the actual effects of our actions. I saw that everything I did mattered because they affect everyone else around me. My sins were not kept in a vacuum, but were observed, studied, and duplicated by others around me.
The heartbreak when I see my loved ones destroy the beauty of life shows me how it really does start with myself. As Schopenhauer said, people either act through traditions, customs, or imitation. If I don’t pay attention to my own actions and walk a path that I could be proud of, then the people who look up to me that I care will not either. The path I walk will be the path of others, but more importantly, I will be the path of others that I care for.
People don’t pay enough attention to how they act because we think that our actions only affect ourselves, but there’s a huge domino effect at play. I found my way back because I saw that we are all connected and took responsibility for it. Everything all of us does all the time matters because we affect other people.
“There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
Failing is one of my favorite things to do. My students always think I’m crazy for believing this. I haven’t always had a great relationship with failure and still to this day there are times when I wish she was never around, but failure is our most honest teacher and a natural part of learning.
Somewhere along the way, humans decided that failing is bad and wrong. We teach our youth to avoid failure at all costs, that failure is the antithesis of success, or failure makes you feel terrible and that is why we should avoid it!
All of that is hot garbage.
Failure is honest. Failure is accurate. Failure teaches us lessons that we are less likely to forget. Failure is power.
When my students attempt active recall questions, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena – when they miss things they are less likely to miss a similar type of question later. I’ve even found this true for myself too. When I was studying for the MCAT, I would do practice questions with multiple parts. I had an easier time remembering the parts I got wrong and the parts I initially got right, I ended up getting wrong later! It’s almost like I needed to fail to remember.
I’ve read somewhere (I’ve spent days trying to find the source but alas, I failed) that people are 7 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. Which makes sense because we tend to remember our critiques more than our praises. But that had me thinking-
Why are we more sensitive to negativity than positivity?
I believe it’s an evolutionary process. We are walking through unknown territory and we experience something negative, we learn quickly to adapt and survive. Whereas, if we experience something positive, the stakes aren’t as high so we don’t learn as fast.
Failure feelings like a threat. Like a real threat. To our brains, failing our self administered tasks is like having our hand touch a hot stove. We learn quickly not to do that thing anymore.
“Failure had better be an option, because whether or not you consider it an option, it’s going to happen! If you go through life with the philosophy that “failure is not an option,” then you’ll never have any good opportunities to learn.”
Jeff Olson (1958 – )
When we fail at something, the probability that we will fail in the same way is pretty small. So in a sense, everytime we fail we get better. We learn what not to do, which is a lot more useful than we like to acknowledge.
What excellent feat has occurred without failure? When we watch professionals play sports or politicians give speeches, we don’t see the hours of failure that have happened in the background. Just because we see the shiny finished product, doesn’t mean that they were always that way. In fact, if you ask them, I’m sure every single successful person will tell you that they have failed more times than they succeeded.
“Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
I believe desirable progress is based off two things:
Identifying what needs to improve.
Acquiring the skills or knowledge required to improve.
Failing reveals to us exactly what needs to get better. The rest is education and deliberate practice. Failing is half the battle. Whenever we’re learning something new, we fail in all sorts of ways, but how we fail is an insight into how we succeed. It’s like trying to complete a maze; it’s not very likely that we are going to get to the exit without hitting a dead end. Once we hit the dead end, we try a different route, and if we hit another dead end we try another route until we reach the exit. We cannot discover what to do without discovering what not to do.
“Would you like me to give you the formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.… You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the other side of failure.”
Thomas Watson (1874 – 1956)
In order to accept failure gracefully and learn as much as we can, we must detach our identities from our successes or failures. When we fail, we are not failures, we simply did not take the actions necessary for the desired outcome to manifest. By the same token, when we succeed, we are not successes, we simply took the actions necessary for the desired outcomes to come into being. Failure and success is simply the difference between executing necessary actions and not executing necessary actions.
Our failures are stepping stones to mastery and temporary defeats.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
Napoleon Hill (1883 – 1970)
Defeat is not realized until we stop getting up. We decide when we are defeated, no one else does. Whenever I’ve failed in the past, I can always find an exact moment when I admitted defeat. There is always a singular moment in time when I decide that I had enough of whatever challenge is in front of me. When I admit defeat, I stop learning because I stop finding my inadequacies. Failure is what shines the light on what needs to be improved.
“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self. Uniform development exists, at most, at the beginning; later, everything points toward the centre. This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned.”
Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)
Circumambulation – the act of moving around an idol – in this case the idol is our maximally developed selves, also known as the Jungian conception of the self. The Self is different for each person, which makes sense to me because no one has the same genetic make up. It’s almost like The Self is a metaphysical representation of our biological dispositions.
I find the idea of circumambulation to be pivotal in understanding the power of failure. Circumambulation of the self is the idea that all of the smaller skills we develop ourselves in is actually apart of a bigger, centrifugal development. Each of these skills is obtained by traveling, so to speak, to all of the far corners of our minds. The Self is our maximally developed selves potentialized in the future and circumambulation is our journey of manifesting this self into actuality.
It’s kind of like this – we develop a bunch of smaller skills, and at first this feels like a linear progression, but as we go through life we start to see the skills pointing towards an ideal.
Learning about circumambulation freed me up in so many different ways because I was worried that I had too many different interests and developing myself in too many different things will prevent me from manifesting my Jungian Self. The best example of this was when I was repressing my love for music because I felt like it didn’t fit with the skills I needed for medicine. Now that I see it is the culmination of all of these skills that will bring about my best self, I feel free to pursue all of my interests wholeheartedly.
Jordan Peterson beautifully outlines the circumambulation of the self and how it relates to failure in the video below.
Jordan Peterson always says the fool is the precursor to the hero and I believe that makes a lot of sense because the one who is willing to make mistakes ends up learning the most, and learning is what’s necessary to save everyone from the malevolent forces of chaos. We see it all the time in movies. The main character is usually seriously flawed but grows over time and that’s where the richness of the story lies. Ash is the worst Pokemon training of all time, but that’s what gives the story room to breathe. The same case is true with us – we are flawed beings, but our admission of our flaws and the strive to improve these imperfections is what embodies our life with meaning.
Robert Greene also references circumambulation in his book, Mastery, but not explicitly. Robert talks about all children having inclinations. These inclinations are strong unexplainable interests that a child develops early on in life. As they get older, they tend to ignore these inclinations and pretend like they aren’t important. Greene suggests adults to do deep reflection to revivify that lost child within them and lean into their inclinations for that is where people will find the skills necessary to be their best. I believe the skills we need to manifest the Jungian Self are found in developing our inclinations.
When we try something new, we are usually very bad at it, but over time we get better. At first it may seem like these things are disconnected by as long as we are developing our inclinations (as defined by Greene) then we will see that all of our development aims towards a central ideal.
“Knock me down nine times but I get up ten, bitch.”
Cardi B (1992 – )
As mentioned earlier, we are only defeated once we stay down but sometimes our failures may throw us off course. Sometimes when we’re knocked down, it takes some time to reorient ourselves again. When we fail, we have to take stock of where we are in relation to our goals. We can’t simply get back up and start moving again. We want to get back up, get back on the right path, then start moving again. We have to consider course correction when we fail. We did not succeed for a reason and it’s important to figure out why and how we move forward without experiencing that specific failure again.
The power of course correction is really laid out in the Apollo mission to the moon-
“On its way to landing astronauts safely on the surface of the moon, the miracle of modern engineering that was an Apollo rocket was actually on course only 2 to 3 percent of the time. Which means that for at least 97 percent of the time it took to get from the Earth to the moon, it was off course. In a journey of nearly a quarter of a million miles, the vehicle was actually on track for only 7,500 miles. Or to put it another way, for every half-hour the ship was in flight, it was on course for less than one minute. And it reached the moon—safely—and returned to tell the tale.”
Jeff Olson (1958 – )
Most of the time the rocket was off course, but that didn’t matter because they still made it to their destination with continuous course correction. It doesn’t matter how often we fail, as long as we are constantly trying to get back on track. The astronauts on the Apollo rocket didn’t think “Oh no we’re off course now! It’s too late! It’s all screwed up! I can’t believe we let this get off course! Let’s just quit!” They simply acknowledged the failure and readjusted their actions accordingly and by doing that enough, they ended up on the moon!
We can see the same thing happen with sports too! Kobe Bryant had a terrible first season of basketball. When he first started, Kobe was horrendous but after he failed he took a step back and figured out exactly what he needed to work on to get his game better. He course corrected and developed The Mamba Mentality, which I think is one of the most powerful perspectives to take on.
Failure doesn’t have to be something that we desperately try to avoid. It teaches us what we need to improve and offers us opportunity to grow. Coupled with ideas like the Circumambulation of the Self and Course Correction, failure can be seen as an exciting phenomena of life. Many of my students think I’m insane for loving failure, but am I really?