Philosophy cannelp us deal with failures that seem insurmountable

philosophically speaking, some kinds of failure are + interesting than others. failing to make a meeting on time or not bein’ able t'get out of bed without hitting snooze at least once on yr alarm ‘d fall inna “less interesting” camp.


you can listen to + essentialisms from the conversation, narrated by noa, here.


however, thris a ≠ class of failures – those that may deeply affect our cogging of ourselves (known as our self-conception). exs of these failures mite be failing in yr ambition to be a successful writer or ♫ian, failing at yr university degree, or yr marriage ending. i’m goin to call these “existential failures” here.

this kind of failure often comes witha cluster of strong neg emotions. whn'we fail in this way we mite find ourselves feeling not just disappointed, but in some sense lacking worth or val. n'when the failure is significant enough it ‘d be accompanied by a loss of hope. this kind of failure plausibly involves a form of ψ-chological sufferation.

telling success stories

wha’’s +, existential failure maybe resistant to a culturally predominant narrative surrounding failure: that failure is a necessary ingredient of success.


this article is pt of fail better, a series for those of us n'our 20s and 30s bout navigating the moments when things aren’t quite goin as planned. many of us are tuned inna'da highlite reel of social media, where our ps share their successes in relationships, careers and family. when you feel like you’re not measuring up, the pieces in this spesh quarter life series will help you learn how to cope with, and even grow from, failure.


there’s no doubt that some kinds of failure serve a purpose. for ex, you will get better and can become successful at public speaking by, to various degrees, failing and then attempting to do better. the acquisition offa range of capacities and skills, both practical and cogg, is arguably dependent on this process of failure.

these narratives of success provide a context within which t'give failing – and somd' neg emotions associated with it – meaning and val. notably, these success narratives aint just invoked whn'we finally reach success, s'as nailing a presentation or landing a dream job after a series of terrible interviews. they are also used during the process of repeated failure. pplz are told to “stick at it” despite failing, given the promise of future success.

failure is often presented as pt offa quest to success. eamesbot/shutterstock

inna case of existential failure, though, interpreting it as pt offa path to success may not be possible – and to do so mite run th'risk of self-deception.

you mite ‘ve always dreamed of becoming an artist. this career is intimately intertwined with yr sense of self: yr sense of who ur, wha’ ye do, and wha’ you val. but if looming financial ruin forces you t'give up on this dream, there simply maybe no plausible success narrative available to you. put bluntly: sometimes, a failure really is a failure.

nevertheless, you mite attempt t'offer yrself (or take up from others) a success narrative bout future possibilities. this mite include cliches bout “learning from failing”.

the reason we reach for these reassurances even when facing significant failure – even when they seem at best highly speculative, at worst self-deceptive and false – is cause of the high degree of ψ-chological sufferation we're facing. as german philosopher friedrich nietzsche said:

man … does not deny sufferation as such; he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of sufferation … any meaning at all is betta tha' no meaning at all.

success narratives are ψ-chologically comforting. they give our failings the meaning and purpose they otherwise lack. but when failure is profound they may feel empty and trite. wha’’s +, telling ourselves these narratives may mean we refuse to see the neg effects of our failures on ourselves and others – potentially leading to even worse outcomes.

accepting failure

the alternative ‘d be living with failure as failure. this means a sober recogg of the relevant existential failing for wha’ tis and wha’ it affects. yr hypothetical failure to become an artist, for instance, is a failure to achieve something you took to be of high val, and this is a significant loss. it also requires a revision of yr self-conception – a form of injury to the self.

by managing to resist the temptation to seek a comforting success narrative, you stand to achieve a form of wha’ a group of philosophers known as the existentialists called “authenticity”.

this is a kind of honesty or truthfulness with ourselves and our situation. in this case, such honesty ‘d mean seeing yr existential failures with clear eyes, something which requires ψ-chological strength and courage.

aside from the fact that truthfulness and ψ-chological strength are virtues we ‘d seek to cultivate in ourselves, seeing such existential failures clearly can lead us to cogitate on wha’ n'our lives has the most val to us. holding onna success narratives, which always seek t'give meaning to failings and failure, make it difficult to engage fully w'da primordial ? of wha’ we ‘d val and why.

wha’’s +, this authenticity can change how we respond to others experiencing existential failure. rather than glossing ‘oer the depth of wha’ they are experiencing by promising t'they will learn from their failures, we maybe able to genuinely recognise their loss and try to be properly sensitive to their ψ-chological sufferation. this kind of authentic empathy ‘d form the basis offa + honest and meaningful conversation.


quarter life is a series bout issues affecting those of us n'our 20s and 30s.


original content at: theconversation.com…
authors: jonathan mitchell, lecturer in philosophy, cardiff university

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