“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
One of the best mission statements ever crafted 235 years ago today. The clarion call to the American Dream. Our chief founding officers got that one right back then, but today is America on track?
The American Dream itself is in question. And our balanced scorecard is not doing so hot. It turns out that a in recent OECD study on “life satisfaction” and “happiness”, the United States failed to make the top ten.
Some lessons for pursuing happiness do come from embracing failure. Appreciating the gritty realities and problems, failures if you will, of life are clinically proven to make you happier. Does that mean that you spend all day wallowing in whatever misery you can find? The yin and yang of happiness is accepting shortcomings while dreaming of possibilities. Like all balancing acts, this one is hard to maintain. The forces of aspiration and hope that dreams inspire hazardously detract one from remaining grounded, while the forces of realism undermine lofty dreams and hopes. In fact the OECD highlights ‘balance’ as a critical determinant in the Happiness Index: “The happiest countries seem to be places where there is a good balance of work and leisure time.”
So I really mean it when I wish America a HAPPY birthday.
“Half the fear of failure is of the judgement of false friends we feel compelled to impress but don’t even like” – Alain de Botton
World Philosophy Day today seems like an ideal time to re-visit one of the leading philosophers of today, himself an acolyte of embracing failure, Alain de Botton. His recent book is itself “The Consolations of Philosophy” a treatise on the broad expanse of failure in the human condition and how to embrace it. With each domain, he selects a philosopher from the ages whose own work exemplified…
- Unpopularity – Socrates: “The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic.”
- Not Having Enough Money – Epicurus – “If we have money without friends, freedom or an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
- Frustration – Seneca: “Because we are injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything, we must hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times…Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.”
- Inadequacy – Montaigne: “To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.”
- Broken Heart – Schopenhauer: “Deceptive images of a vague happiness of our dreams hover before us in capriciously selected shapes and we search in vain for their original.”
- Difficulty – Nietzsche: “We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing?”
Chet is just a maven of embracing failure, but also a master on the topic balancing two concepts that on the surface might seem opposed, but underneath really have a critical cross-dependency. Many of this dualities pivot along the same lines as Leadership (upside) and Management (downside). One of my favourites is excerpted from Chet Raymo’s book ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ in his post ‘Yearning and Learning’…
In an article on the psychological basis of belief, the psychologist James Alcock proposed that two aspects of the human brain might be called the ‘yearning unit’ and the ‘learning unit.’ He probably didn’t mean these terms to be taken literally, as referring to separate compartments of the brain, but yearning and learning are certainly central to the way we interact with the world. It is hard to imagine how we can be fully human without a little of each. Finding the proper balance between the two is a task that can keep us occupied for most of our lives.
- We yearn when we dream of fulfilment, of greater happiness, of knowing more. We yearn when we love, when we laugh, when we cry, when we pray. Yearning is wondering what is around the next bend, over the rainbow, beyond the horizon. Yearning is curiosity. Yearning is the driving force of science, philosophy, and religion.
- Learning is listening to parents, wise men, shamans. Learning is reading, going to school, traveling, doing experiments, being skeptical. Learning is looking behind the curtain for the Wizard of Oz, touching the stove to see if it’s hot, not taking anyone’s word for it. In science, learning means trying as hard to prove that something is wrong as to prove it right, even if that something is a cherished belief.
- Yearning without learning is seeing Elvis in a crowd, the fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs together in ancient rocks, weeping statues. Yearning without learning is buying tabloid newspapers with headlines announcing ‘Newborn baby talks of Heaven’ and the like. Yearning without learning is looking for UFOs in the sky and the meaning of life in horoscopes.
- Learning without yearning is pedantry, scientism, dogmatic belief. Learning without yearning is believing that we know it all, that what we see is what we get, that nothing exists except what can be presently weighed and measured. Learning without yearning is science without a heart, without a dream, without a hope of beauty. Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.”
Leaders are yearners; Managers are learners. Both together are needed for an inspired vision of the world.
Education in the school of life
Warning: Harsh Truths and Harsh Language
- "Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? F*ck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close."
Lessons in the classroom of life are masterfully lectured in David Wong’s “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person”…
- “Feel free to stop reading this if your career is going great, you’re thrilled with your life and you’re happy with your relationships. Enjoy the rest of your day, friend, this article is not for you. You’re doing a great job, we’re all proud of you…It’s brutal, rude and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing… I don’t like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes…’But I’m not good at anything!’ Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything. I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking. Don’t like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell — I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result…Because in my non-expert opinion, you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just ‘love you for you’ — that’s why you’re miserable and sending me private messages asking me what I think you should do with your life… Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created. It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him…Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.”
So where is the embracing failure in a rant about people not succeeding? Using one of the all-time classic diatribes against failure as its centrepiece. The focus in this case is on embracing the failure of “fairness.” Its failure to meet expectations, its failure to be kind. As a seasoned sales manager myself, who may not have an “$80,000 BMW” (but I do have an $80,000 television set), I don’t approve of all of the words and style of Baldwin’s speech, but the spirit of “life is not fair, life is hard, get over it, and do something productive” is one I embrace completely.
Towards the end of the piece, Wong dissects all of the things people do to avoid embracing this failure. How may do you recognise?…
- The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defence mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict…
- Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult – "Who is he to call me lazy and worthless! A good person would never talk to me like this! He wrote this whole thing just to feel superior to me and to make me feel bad about my life! I’m going to think up my own insult to even the score!"
- Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message – "Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go dig up something on him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid! This guy is so pretentious, it makes me puke! I watched his old rap video on YouTube and thought his rhymes sucked!" "When you get to where I am in life, you feel free to give me advice! Until then, you’re nothing but meat and guesses."
- Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content – "I’m going to dig through here until I find a joke that is offensive when taken out of context, and then talk and think only about that! I’ve heard that a single offensive word can render an entire book invisible!"
- Revising Your Own History – "Things aren’t so bad! I know that I was threatening suicide last month, but I’m feeling better now! It’s entirely possible that if I just keep doing exactly what I’m doing, eventually things will work out! I’ll get my big break, and if I keep doing favors for that pretty girl, eventually she’ll come around!"
- Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out Your True Self – Misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.
- “He was in the grip of something else—a profound and far more troubling meltdown that comes not in childhood but in midlife, when we perceive that our personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward as it once did… This man was hurting, yet his problem wasn’t mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of his way so he could solve it.”
You can also choose not the play the game. Games people play…to resolve their personal, relationship, and emotional conflicts. Including the death of dreams.
Laura Munson recounts an odyssey of coping with her husband’s mid-life crisis in her article “The last word: He said he was leaving. She ignored him” (thanks Debbie). In it, she illustrates so many lessons shared here – embracing failure, concentrating on solving problems rather than ‘being right’ and of could grieving over the death of dreams.
- “And I saw what had been missing: pride. He’d lost pride in himself. Maybe that’s what happens when our egos take a hit in midlife and we realize we’re not as young and golden anymore. When life’s knocked us around. And our childhood myths reveal themselves to be just that. The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: It’s not a spouse, or land, or a job, or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal. My husband had become lost in the myth. But he found his way out. We’ve since had the hard conversations. In fact, he encouraged me to write about our ordeal. To help other couples who arrive at this juncture in life. People who feel scared and stuck. Who believe their temporary feelings are permanent. Who see an easy out and think they can escape. My husband tried to strike a deal. Blame me for his pain. Unload his feelings of personal disgrace onto me. But I ducked. And I waited. And it worked.”
The Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope strategy to relationship conflict.
"The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is."
Of all the commencements and graduations taking place these days, today is the most special to me because it marks the graduation of my niece, Katie Stropkay. I’ve featured lots of university addresses here on the subjects of both leadership, and (mostly) embracing failure, but this is my first high school graduation speech shared. This Wellesley High School (just down the road from Katie’s Concord-Carlisle school) address by English teacher David McCullough makes his case for the ‘humble’ in ‘humbition’…
- “Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you…If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.”
But he doesn’t stop with a little bit of mathematical perspective. He goes into an energetic reset of identity and expectations…
- “You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special. Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counselled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet…And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
Though in this case, Katie, you are special! Congrats!
Victory in Europe Day today is a time for remembrance of one of the most tragic horrors of our times. It’s hard to imagine such a failure of humanity that was the Nazi experience in Germany could inspire any positivity. But Guardian Religious Affairs correspondent Riazat Butt points out that even the darkest tragedies can have their own silver linings in a BBC2 ‘Pause for Thought’…
- “I was in my room last week, reading about Nazi Germany’s desire to destroy the Soviet Union, when all of a sudden I started bawling my eyes out. As I cried I could only think: ‘I want to get married. I want to have a baby.’ If it sounds abrupt and bizarre, then trust me it felt like that too…I had no idea what was going on, so I asked my friend Sadia for help. She said there was nothing to understand. I was just ready. ‘This is great,’ she told me. ‘Everything starts with intention. You have to know you want something before you can take active steps towards it.’ It made her smile, though, that Hitler, the father of collective societal annihilation, had brought about my recognition and desire for continuity and companionship. She talked about Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, who wrote that God created suffering and heartache so that joy might be known as their opposite. ‘God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so you’ll have two wings to fly – not teaches you by means of opposites, so you’ll have two wings to fly – not one.’ Or as Sadia put it, you can’t know something until you’ve experienced its opposite. ‘Think about it,’ she said, ‘how do you know you’re at a good place in your life unless you’ve been through a bad place? How do you know you want happiness unless you’ve been truly miserable?’”
Fyodor Dostoevsky born on this day in 1821.
Of all of the tragedies to bear in life, years in a brutal prison camp would seem about as low as one could go. Dostoevsky bore them with gratitude for teaching him the preciousness of life and, in effect, Seth’s strategy for getting unstuck. The end result was a collection of literary masterpieces for which the rest of the world should be grateful. His ordeal is recounted in Robert Greene’s ’33 Strategies of War’ illustrating the “Death-Ground Strategy”…
- “Dostoyevsky was told his new sentence: four years hard labor in Siberia, to be followed by a stint in the army. Barely affected, he wrote that day to his brother, ‘When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness,…then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift…every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew! Now my life will change; now I will be reborn.’ A few days later, ten-pound shackles were put on Dostoyevsky’s arms and legs–they would stay there for the length of his prison term–and he was carted off to Siberia. For the next four years, he endured the most abysmal prison conditions. Granted no writing privileges, he wrote novels in his head, memorized them. Finally, in 1857, still serving the army period of his sentence, he was allowed to start publishing his work. Where before he would torture himself over a page, spend half a day idling it away in thought, now he wrote and wrote. Friends would see him walking the streets of St. Petersburg mumbling bits of dialogue to himself, lost in his characters and plots. His new motto was ‘Try to get as much done as possible in the shortest time.’ Some pitied Dostoyevsky his time in prison. That made him angry; he was grateful for the experience and felt no bitterness. But for that December day in1849, he felt, he would have wasted his life. Right up until his death, in 1881, he continued writing at a frantic pace, churning out novel after novel—Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov –as if each one were his last.”
I guess you could call 14 February, the day he was released after 5 years incarceration, his second birthday.
“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
As the Frankie Boyle Paralympic controversy underscores, if there one life-skill that any comedian must develop, it is embracing vulnerability. The ultimate guru to aspiring performers…an just about anyone else…is Brene Brown. Her TED talk on the subject (above) is a classic and powerful expression of embracing the failure in all of us. She admonished us that there are 3 things we all do to avoid embracing failure and vulnerability…
- We pretend (that things are okay when they are not) – “The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it…. So what I did is I took all of the interviews where I saw worthiness, where I saw people living that way, and just looked at those. What do these people have in common?…They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
- We perfect (in an effort to control) – “And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting. This led to a little breakdown — which actually looked more like this. And it did. I call it a breakdown; my therapist calls it a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening sounds better than breakdown, but I assure you it was a breakdown. And I had to put my data away and go find a therapist…And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
- We numb (in an effort to blunt and hide the pain of failure) – “This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability…And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”
Leaders and Managers can learn something from dirt itself in its embrace.
Leadership and Management is all about balance between the two. Balancing upside opportunity with downside risk. Chet Raymo illustrates a great metaphor from the world of science for getting this right – the angle of repose…
- “There is a concept in physics called angle of repose. Set an object, a book say, on a plank. Now slowly tip up one end of the plank until the moment when the book just starts to slide. The angle between the plank and the horizontal is the angle of repose, where the component of the gravitational force down the plank becomes greater than the maximum friction force holding the book at rest. Or, in more evocative terms — As I write I am lying on the couch with the laptop in my lap, in perfect repose. If you started tipping up the couch, at some point I’d go sliding into a heap at the bottom. That’s the angle of repose, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the angle of the end of repose.”
Leaders elevate the trajectory, Managers keeping things from falling down. Both together achieve the angle of repose.