Success: A Deconstruction

I’ve often found the word ‘success’ troublesome, especially when paired with its spiritual opposite, failure. These words bother me most when applied to people. Take for example, the generalized anxiety about ‘fear of failure’. One of the many proposed ways of dealing with this anxiety (which is not unhelpful), one of the ways to become a ‘success’ is to begin to allow yourself to fail. A lot. Yet I don’t think that reducing, significantly, one’s fear of failure is a quantifiable metric for success. Specifically because: it makes no damn sense to apply the words ‘success’ or ‘failure’ to human beings.

Instead, I think of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as very technical terms. Like ‘error’ or ‘complete’ or ‘hybridized data survey’. Success, in my crude formulation, is a thing which is true in perpetuity. An attempt can fail and fail and fail, but upon reaching success will stay that way forever, concluding in a rate at least 51% greater than the amount of failures.

Sorry, I might have lost you for a moment there with the whole 51% thing. Here’s what happened when I tried to explain it to my father.

He has a fairly scientific mind. So I say, success, when it happens, is theoretically infinite. He counters with the nearest thing at hand. Standing in his kitchen, there is one of those spherical containers of Morton salt. He takes the salt, walks over to the sink, picks up a glass. He proceeds to miss pouring the salt into the glass. There, he says, I have failed to pour salt into this glass

This enlivens me. Ah, I say, but if your goal is to get salt in the glass, surely you could fail multiple times, but eventually you will devise a system or ritual that gets salt in the glass. And once you have built up that system (in this case, muscle memory) you will succeed far more on average than you will fail. Thomas Edison failed and failed in his experiments to find the right filament that would be luminous and lasting, but once he found it, the success of the light bulb will last infinitely longer than its failures to be created.

Let’s go back to the salt for a moment though. Let’s make it more complicated. Let’s say you’re trying to devise the proper salination ratio for an IV bag. First you have to get salt and water, and then some kind of system to test the proper mixture of salt in the water. And perhaps that testing system has its own independent success and failure points but once its worked out, barring minor fluctuations, it becomes incredibly simple and successful to manufacture IV bags on a large scale. You don’t have to rediscover the proper salination ratio every time you want to make an IV bag.

My father weakens for a moment, but rebuttals; of course, that doesn’t stop each individual mis-step from being a failure. I admit that of course he would be right, if only that was how we judged failure. Failure and success do not exist as independent tasks. If failure and success had the same probability of happening, in every attempt at completion, then perhaps failure would have meaning. But this isn’t what happens. Failure is not independent of its attempts at completion. Or put another way, if a thing has a possibility of success, it will happen. It’s a goofy companion piece to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, everything that can happen, does. No matter how difficult or improbable. If it can succeed, it will at least 51% of the time. So if anything that can happen does, so long as someone bothers to do it, success is meaningless. It’s just reality that doesn’t exist yet.

I’ve perhaps overstepped my bounds bringing physics into this, since I speak specifically of a ratio of human success or failure, I apologize. Yet I like the comparison because science has that objective quality. And it’s all the subjective parts that we attach to ‘success’ or ‘failure’ which make them messy, and which bother me, because as I’ve just stated, from an objective viewpoint, they’re essentially meaningless terms. Yet often we treat them as quite serious. And apply them to people and their potential. Which is a bit like saying, when calling someone a ‘success’, that said person is;

“On a rocket-ship to eternal validation.” They will never again be second guessed. They will never again fail. And that failures, have never considered the potentiality of their failures. I think death is the demonstrable counter to this weird judge of character.

Success and failure weirldly presumes; everyone is a success waiting to be realized. I understand how this is helpful for trying to sell you things, but if you think about it for more than a couple minutes it makes no sense.

Isn’t validation a subjective quality? So then by most metrics what makes a human successful is subjective? Sure, absolutely. But that’s not what ‘success’ or ‘failure’ mean. They have highly charged objective meanings. One is positive, the other negative. So if they’re objective lets treat them as objective.

Let’s bring Edison back in, and his competitors. Here’s one of the subjective qualities of success, competition. Who would be the First to design that new thing. The lightbulb. The theory of evolution. The personal computing revolution. So many things which are born into the world at similar times because the situation was ripe to happen. Whether or not one person, or another, finally succeeds in a synthesis, to us as the general public it doesn’t matter who technically does it. Whoever wins and gets to it first is ‘successful’, but we would hardly qualify this as the ultimate positive value of success.

One could deconstruct many of the subjective ways in which the word the words ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are used. For example, ‘completing successfully’ or ‘success at’. But think to yourself, by what metric is this being judged? Subjective or objective. And the next time you see someone try and apply these terms ‘success’ or ‘failure’ to a person, I hope it seems a little more silly.

Podcast: Western Thought. Writes literary fiction. His audiobook The Town of Books; first chapter.