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Life is Hard: Failure

Updated: Jun 19

By Dr Julian Kiverstein, Philosopher, University of Amsterdam

Chapter 4 is a reflection upon the pain of failure. All of us will encounter failure in our endeavours,  be they at work, in love, or as parents. Living in societies that are focused on economic productivity and the accumulation of material wealth, we often measure our lives in terms of success or failure. Indeed the pain of failure comes from making our self-worth dependent upon success in the projects we pursue. Failure hurts us because it becomes part of a person’s self-understanding, and how they think about who they are.  

We tend to blame our failures upon ourselves when in reality they are as much to do with the contingencies of our social circumstances as they are to do with our individual actions.

Kieran argues that it is a mistake to define who you are by your successes and failures. This mistake stems from a tendency, found in philosophy, but also in wider society, to understand past, present, and future events in our lives as forming a narrative arc. We tend to think of a good life as forming a coherent story, like a plot in a movie in which each of us is the protagonist. To loosen the grip that our failures have on us, and on our self-understanding, Kieran invites us to reflect on to what extent it makes sense, or does not make sense, to view our lives as having the structure of a simple story or narrative. Every person’s life is infinitely more complex than the stories that entertain us in the cinema. 

There is much more to a life than can be captured in a simple linear story arc.

What makes for a good life, Kieran contends, are countless small moments, thoughts and deeds, not some grand overarching narrative that one is living through. Kieran gives the example of Prince Myshkin from the 19 th century novel The Idiot written by Fyodor Dostoevsky to support and bolster his argument. Myshkin is described by Dostoevsky as living a beautiful life but things do not work out well for him. He becomes romantically involved with two women one of who he is forced to betray in order to save the other, only to be abandoned by her at the altar. His life is beautiful because he strives to do what is right in each of the difficult circumstances he confronts. The goodness of his life comes not from what he achieves but from how he lives.

To show why we should not let our failures define how we think about ourselves, Kieran makes a helpful conceptual distinction between two kinds of activities – telic actions that aim at a specific end or outcome that can be accomplished, atelic activities that can never be fully exhausted and brought to completion once and for all. Spending time with friends is an example of an atelic activity.

It is an activity that lasts for a fixed and limited period of time but it is not an activity that can be completed once and for all. With telic activities that satisfaction and value is dependent on attaining the end of those actions in the future. Not so with atelic activities that are satisfying when we perform them in the present.

Now insofar as we make the value of our lives depend on the success of telic activities, we risk failure in living a good life. Moreover, once telic actions are brought to successful completion, so also is the meaning in our lives. We must look for some new ends and goals to provide our lives with meaning. If by contrast we locate value in atelic activities, as Myshkin did, our relation to success and failure will be quite different. The meaning we find in atelic activities is inexhaustible, and it is value that we experience and realise in the present, in the very performance of those activities. Think for instance of the pleasure of going for a walk without having a destination in mind. 

There is no avoiding failure in life but thinking differently about our failures, making them less central, may provide a way to deprive failure of some of its sting.

Dr Julian Kiverstein 

Julian is Assistant Professor of Neurophilosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He is currently writing a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan entitled The Significance of Phenomenology, and editing a comprehensive handbook for Routledge Taylor Francis on the philosophy of the social mind. He is associate editor of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences and was until recently Book Review Editor for the Journal of Consciousness Studies. 

Before his appointment at Amsterdam in 2011, Kiverstein was teaching fellow at Edinburgh University, where he played a lead role in developing and designing the Mind, Language and Embodied Cognition Masters Programme, of which he also became director. In 2006 he was one of the main architects of a successful cross disciplinary, Europe-wide project proposal on consciousness, part of the ESF Programme, Consciousness in a Natural and Cultural Context. 

He was Postdoctoral Research Fellow as part of this project, and subsequently became external partner on a cross-European follow up project on the topic of Understanding and Misunderstanding. In 2007-2009, Kiverstein was Project Leader of an interdisciplinary group investigating Subjective Time as part of the VolkswagenStiftung European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences and Humanities.

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