Why Failing Matters

Themistocles had what most people would consider to be a fantastic 10 years. An unconventional leader of the Athenian people between 485-475 BCE, he proved to the entire known world that strategy, wits, and subterfuge could take down an empire. It was his leadership that allowed for the Persian empire to be stopped at three significant battles, Marathon, Artemisium, Plateau and then the legendary Salamis. He was the genius who used espionage to infiltrate the Persian court and sway Xerxes to make counterproductive movements. And while he suffered from a lack of noble breeding, he made up for it in self-promoting vigor eventually becoming the undisputed chief of Athenian democracy. He had a fantastic run.

Then it ended.

For one reason or another--and there were actually many reasons--he ends up being ostracized by the people he had saved and bettered. He had to abandon his home of Athens and flee into exile looking for any other city that might take him in. His shrines and sacred sites were desecrated. The plaques bearing his name and honoring his successive victories were taken down. Eventually he was forced to approach the new king of the Persian Empire and beg to live out his days as an ordinary and obscure citizen. Plutarch, the historian who wrote about him years later suggests that he committed suicide by drinking bulls blood but there really is no way of knowing the truth. I suspect Plutarch imagined the suicide gave the man a last ditch dignity, preserving honor by choosing when and where he died. But, who knows? 

I have always admired Thermistocles. There are the apparent and rather epic reasons. Hundreds of years after his death his reputation was restored. Historians validated his virtues and dismissed the rather mundane and most-probably Machiavellian causes of his fall from grace. Hind sight was kind to him. One rather well known British historian in an emotional moment actually said that due to his colossal victories over the Persian empire, thus securing the future of Western civilization and the dominance of Greco-Roman thought to come, that he was "the most important person in the history of the West." I don't know if this is true. And frankly that's NOT why I admire him. Actually I find him fascinating because for all his victories in life--he  lived out his days as a failure. And that matters.

Recently I had the chance to informally poll a handful of elders and mentors--I asked them what mattered most to them in their experiences--when their life changed and took on significance. Almost every single man reflected that they did not experience true transformation or integration until they had suffered major loss.

This is so remarkably different than what I hear spewing in the Men's Empowerment culture today. Without naming names, I love listening to their podcasts and watching the talking heads. While most of them don't have any hard research to back them, and mostly depend on "bro-science" I find their conclusions often impactful and right on. The blend of stoicism, resiliency, self-determination, and good ole "American pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" is a necessary balance to the softer and stale generation of men just prior to this current epoch. There is a sort of take no prisoners approach that my favorite men's guru's today lean on. And I love it. But, I also find it lacking. Not in theory mind you--but in actual life. Maybe that's why we appreciate it. We enjoy our fiction, don't we?

One masculinity swami recently hosted a 20 year old ultra-marathoner who proclaimed "Every man can and should run a marathon." He reflected on his own conditioning, and his overcoming of obstacles to get there. it was inspiring, I admit. But there was something missing. You know what was lacking? That’s right: failure. This is a young man who had achieved every bench mark he set. He, seemingly, has not flinched from his targets. He is in control of his own destiny. And that’s how I know he’s a young man—just beginning the hero’s journey. 

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, noted that all the great fables, myths, and legends shared a similar structure. They developed along a synchronistic form and if you are watchful, you’ll notice those plot line movements. There’s the initial call to adventure, the meeting of the mentor, tests and trials, there’s an ordeal—and usually there is an enemy (whether internal or external) that the hero cannot defeat and did nothing to summon or create. This adversary is largely out of the scope of the hero’s control. Even if he could stop it, he is  powerless to do so. In fact the trope of most ancient stories was less about victory in the end, and more often about living a life in the shadow of Fate, of life outside of your dominance or control. How does the hero respond when their targets are unreachable, when their allies betray them, when their friends disappear, when their strength fails, and when their wits are suddenly useless? 

Modern man wants none of this. The myths of progress and social Darwinism are solidly encalicified in our post-industrial reality. The Bob-the-Builder mentality of fixing anything and everything has been taught since childhood. Men, who biologically tend towards risk taking, achievement and aggression as it is, find all the cultural reinforcement they need to avoid the concept of fate and failure like the plague. And who wants it anyway? Not I. 

But wanting it isn’t really the point. It’s about being unable to avoid it. Failure—the True Adversary, the thing that was almost tailor made to penetrate your armor and well designed self protective strategies, when it comes is unknowable. You can’t stop it, because you often don’t see it.  And that’s why in the end it’s the real teacher. The gift is the Fall. Without failure we are too carried along by our ego, dominated by our own carefully crafted Bullshit, to know what our blind spots are. Failure cuts through all of that, powerfully and transforms us, potentially, from “wild men to wise men” as Father Richard Rohr comments.

Yesterday I was speaking with a rather renowned Intimacy and Relationship Coach. As I sat with him he told me about his own failures. He shared a story I already knew--how he'd lived with sexual addiction well into his thirties, even as he had climbed the ladder of success. As a pastor and psychologist he achieved tremendous things--but all the while his unconfronted shadow was lurking, gobling up real-estate in his soul. He acted out numerous times, with clients, with paritioners. And finally he'd had enough. He couldn't go on. He came forward. And guess what happened. No one applauded him. They cast him out. Coldly.  Of course there were consequences of his actions--however after that aspect he really didn't have any one left. "But," he said to me, "For the first time I was beginning to be ME!  I was beginning to get real and tell the truth. And that was priceless."

Success allows us to tell lies to ourselves and others, tricking everyone into thinking we have the game figured out, all the while leaving the bodies buried in the backyard. We wonder why after the big show or the stellar meeting or the award ceremony we feel empty inside. It's because there's a certain hollowness to the whole thing. Success SEEMS like what we're after, but actually FAILURE is the better teacher. It teaches us to take one step at a time, to put one foot in front of the other. It builds from the inside out. 

A young man recently asked me what advise I would give him for career development. Do you know what I told him?  "Try. Fail. Fall. Get up. Keep running. Try something else. Fail again. The important part isn't the running, its the failing. That's how you'll get to know exactly what you're made out of. "

It's a shame that our culture doesn't see the value in that brokenness. It's the great teacher.