Failure and being hooked to a positive outlook

Costica Bradatan:

We fail all the time, in things large and small, yet our biggest failure may be that, as a rule, we don’t understand failure. And since we are not equipped to think about it, we can’t grasp its broader significance in our lives.

A long evolutionary history has hardwired us to go blindly for whatever increases our chances of survival in the world, and therefore to chase immediate success. Brooding over failure, just as brooding over our finitude and mortality, doesn’t improve our chances of survival.

Failure is the sudden irruption of nothingness in the midst of existence, and contemplating nothingness, while spiritually enlightening, doesn’t make much evolutionary sense. That’s why when failure happens – and it happens all the time – we instinctively tend to move on, without paying much heed or studying it in depth.

This must be one of failure’s sweetest victories over us: on a deep level, we are designed to fail, and to fail badly (including our final failure: physical annihilation), and yet we are conditioned to remain blissfully unaware of failure’s darker message because our thinking can’t come to terms with it, just as it can’t come to terms with death itself.


Th[e] sugarcoating of failure is part of a larger societal process. Everything that is unpleasant, disturbing, depressing in our culture is neutralised, sterilised and promptly taken out of view. Not so much for mental health reasons as for economic and social ones.

To be productive members of society, to be able to make large amounts of money and to spend even more, to take loans and to pay them back with interest, we need to be hooked to a ‘positive outlook’.

Capitalism doesn’t thrive on loners, depressives and metaphysicians. No respectable bank will lend money to a client today who may snap and go Henry David Thoreau tomorrow.

Costica Bradatan. “Learning to Be a Loser: A Philosopher’s Case for Doing Nothing.” Psyche, Psyche Magazine, 19 June 2023, Accessed 28 June 2023.

The American self-help industrial complex

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen in The Yale Review:

As Americans, we find ourselves in a culture that so fetishizes success that it cannot tolerate failure. So it deals with it in one of two ways.

The first is to view failure in individualized and atom­ized terms, blaming the losers for their losses.

The second, which is equally insidious, is to be so disdainful of failure that it insists that what looks like failure in fact is a mere “stepping-stone to success,” in the philosopher Costica Bradatan’s phrase.

Thus the platitudinous self-help bromides that we find adorned on a framed poster in a bank teller’s cubicle (“Failure is success in progress”) or shouted by a fitness influencer hawking protein powder on TikTok (“There’s no failure that willpower can’t turn into success”).

In a culture that demands overcoming against all odds, even failure has been commodified by the American self-help industrial complex: rebranded not as a devastating and possibly life-altering event but as a blip en route to a chest-thumping achievement, accomplish­ment, or acquisition.

A list of best practices will not make you a great company

… any more than finding a recipe will make you a great cook.

Bill Bennett reflects on the writings of Alfred North Whitehead on learning. He ends up dismissing the pursuit of “best practices” as secrets to success in favor of a culture of discovery:

  • Design your organization so that it develops new capabilities;
  • Make it your job, as a leader, to help your organization be better at learning;
  • Structure your organization so that your people must engage with important, unsolved problems.
  • Establish routines that allow for failure and reward those who try to discover;
  • Build a culture that values discovering over knowing, becoming over being;
  • Lead by design.

And don’t forget the secret: There is no secret1