Positive Failure VS the Age of Success

The first enlightenment took place in the 17th and 18th century and at is roots were to challenge ideas. It was unquestioned that we need to get it right. Failure was seen as positive.

In his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the era’s motto in the following terms: “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” Is this something that we employ now? Do we dare to use our own reasoning?

The function of the first enlightenment was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and advance knowledge through the scientific method. The French Revolution in 1789 was its culmination and the realization of throwing out the old authorities to remake society along rational lines, however, it fell into a bloodbath and showed the limits of its own ideas and led, a decade later, to the rise of Napoleon. Enlightened rationality gave way to the wildness of Romanticism, then 19th-century Liberalism and Classicism—finally 20th-century Modernism— and now what I call, the age of success/arrogance.

Here is my theory:

Positive failure: is failure after appropriate investment that leads to further learning or development.

Preconditions for positive failure: acceptance of one’s own vulnerability, having a growth mind-set and embracing imperfection.

With all of our brand new technology, Universities and literature we are invincible…? We can communicate at the speed of light, we have the internet and are very comfortable (relatively & sociologically speaking). So if this is the case why is it that:

1. Emotional problems such as anxiety and depression are up in Britain and research is showing that these issues are being taken forward into adulthood (Collinshaw, 2004, Seligman, 2011, & McCulloch, 2007). This pattern is mirrored across the globe; children’s well-being worldwide is a cause for concern.

2. We are one of the most depressed generations to inhabit the earth. Studies have shown that we are consuming more anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication than ever before (Brown, 2010). Something here is failing. We seem to have more possessions, more security and more technology than we have ever had. Yet we are still unhappy?

3. Studies have shown that there are three and four year olds who arrive at school utterly convinced that it is their job to impress their teachers, parents and society as a whole (Smiley and Dweck, 1994). I argue that many children have been socialised into subscribing to the notion that looking great and performing well is more important than exploring, more important than hypothesizing, more important than experimenting and more important than failing.

The answer is that we were not designed to get it right. We were designed to get it wrong… then do it again trying something different..

From Shakespeare, to Tolkien, to Rowling, the characters we know and love are quintessentially human and they make mistakes. We all know that no one is perfect, yet we try to portray this to the world.

Do our children have the adequate resources to meet present and future challenges? Under the pressure of aiming for our prized values, many people feel obliged to try and manage their feelings rather than focus on the demands themselves, this can increase, and cause desperate and vivid attempts to avoid self-criticism

Our children are more confident, more individual and more vulnerable than they ever have been. Their self-esteem is at record levels, yet employers the world over, complain of how they are just not up to the standard required. When they don’t know what to do, they crumble. Do they have the resilience necessary to secure the job or career they want? They are labelled as bright, dim, clever or stupid at younger and younger ages. The IQ test continues to be the basis for the 11+ exam in the UK and is over 100 years old. Can you imagine if medicine, technology or science still used instruments and measurements from 100 years ago?

I argue that in this ‘Google’ age, facts are not what our young people need. Students do not arrive at secondary school aged 11 with all the answers and the best grades. They arrive ready to succeed when they actually should arrive ready to fail. We have put in place a dazzling miasma of systems and procedures to ensure that kids do not fail.

It has been suggested that before working with children one should subscribe to the following mantra:

‘Primum non nocre’ – ‘ First, do no harm’

Success is harming our children. Through the media. I now believe we have an ‘age of success’ which; in our typically human fashion we are very happy with. Problem is, it isn’t working..

I argue that we all subconsciously want to be right, all the time. Hypothetically, let’s imagine a world where this happens. Every endeavor succeeds as well as you thought it would, every obstacle is overcome easily and any problem is immediately solved. To me, this feels uncomfortable and frightening. Something ironically wouldn’t be ‘right’ if this was reality. We subconsciously strive to keep our image of ourselves positive yet we all know that everyone makes mistakes and nobody’s perfect. So why do we defend, pretend and, in some cases, twist the truth to make ourselves look good?

We seem to find it hugely important to maintain a positive view of ourselves, and the world around us, we use a subconscious and conscious battery of defences and self–deceptive strategies to manage negative information, for example:

1. After a person has failed, it can be tempting to compare yourself to someone less competent. Research has shown that people will go to extraordinary and humiliating lengths to restore their sense of worth after a failure. (Tesser, 2000, Gollwitzer & Wicklund, 1985).

2. People seem to expose themselves to information or even perverted information to make themselves feel good again. (Elliot and Dweck, 2005).

3. A multitude of research has shown that our own talents and attributes are broadly normal and not exceptional and that we have limited control over an unpredictable, chaotic world and our own impulses. (Taylor, 1989 & Taylor and Brown,1988 & 1994).

4. Most people, when directly confronted with evidence that they are wrong, will not change their point of view or course of action, but will dig in and justify it even more. If we are not prepared to admit we have failed, then how can we learn from it? We seem to often be able to admit failure, however avoid responsibility and accountability. Tavris and Aronson (2008) explain how between the conscious lie to fool others and the unconscious self-justification, lurks much confusion. Our memory is fallible and, I argue, that our own ego enhancing tendency as human beings can get in the way of learning; if you lie to yourself for long enough, you will believe yourself.

5. A common defence used is described by Melanie Klein in Burton (2010) who describes how we also use ‘manic defence’ when presented with uncomfortable feelings or thoughts. We distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with opposite thoughts or feelings.

The by product of ‘the age of success’ is the psychological pollution we have developed which saturates exploration, ideasjj and creativity…and it is more addictive than cocaine. One of the most lethal elements of this concoction being Narcissism. Narcissism is an aggressive, defence strategy that I believe to be unnecessary and hurtful to others. Over time people set up what I call a narcissistic self-schema, a narcissistic set of beliefs that people function on. When their self-worth or self-esteem is threatened, people will dig in and defend, often with aggression or rubbishing other people’s opinions, attitudes and putting others down. Physically, some people are even prepared to carve, hack, augment or break bones to achieve physical perfection.

Research has shown that narcissists often attempt to cover their feelings of inadequacy by going to the opposite extreme, they hide behind a false sense of worth that is typically dependant on external accomplishments and other people telling them that they are wonderful.

So, a bleak picture has been painted. How do we get out of the age of success? …I haven’t got a clue.

I feel that we need a second enlightenment and I hypothesise that positive failure may be an integral part, as it was the first time round, Let us connect and not protect our ideas. I am raising the alarm and sounding the call to all intellectuals, academics, parents, children and even governments.

So friends, success is laughing at us…who is up for a fight?

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