The Phoenix Must Burn – Notes on Daring and FailureBy Pablo Ricaud Arriola | Fri, 09/25/2020 - 09:02
Publius Scipio Africanus, the renowned Roman general and politician who neutralized Hannibal after Cartage almost brought the Roman republic to its knees, famously addressed his troops on the eve of battle when facing extremely pitiful odds by saying, “Go, therefore, to meet the foe with two objects before you, either victory or death.”
We always hear stories of people taking tremendous risks and coming out victorious. Maybe that is why Erich Fromm says that creativity requires the courage to let go of certainty. Is going all in with all intention always enough? It all sounds very romantic and inspiring, but what happens with all the stories we don’t hear about people who gave their best but did not prevail? Times change, people change. Our own definition of success shifts. I would dare to say that failure or success has nothing to do with actually reaching. The goal post moves, the goal post is relative.
“It's the possibility that keeps me going, not the guarantee,” said Laura Pritchett. The only guarantee is not knowing the outcome unless tried. Like every nice uncle says: there are only two certain things in life – death and taxes. What we can learn from Scipio is that when trying, it is certainly helpful to go at it all in, meaning failure is so fatal that the mere thought of it is so disastrous it almost gives us superhuman abilities. In this case, defeat meant actual death. In our day and age, when embarking on any pursuit, whether it be a career, a business, or a craft, failure is not as fatal as we might think. Our human mind is very good at exaggerating our own importance and that of our feats, making failure look way more fatalistic than reality. It is just the way we are wired. If your read Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” he suggests that our mind is set up for a certain way of living, and it is not our modern and safe way of living with our priorities all wacked up, it’s the “not getting eaten by a saber tooth tiger” priorities kind of living.
Tim Urban, on his Wait but Why blog, puts this into perspective: Human history. If it were an 800-page book, recorded history accounts for 24 pages, or 6,000 years. Early cities and agriculture before that, another 24 pages. The rest of human existence? 752 pages of hunter-gatherers. 184,000 years. Our brain evolved and adapted to operate during those 752 pages, not the 24 we’ve been living lately. This means our monkey head is used to dealing with life-or-death problems, not our modern problems, which makes us deal with things in a life-or-death manner of importance, basically exaggerating everything.
On what victory or failure actually are, you would need to go inside someone’s mind to actually determine it but you can be sure it is extremely biased by social constructs. Something that has always intrigued me is how we suffer to follow a prefabricated path. “The right path.” Something I personally struggle with daily. Study hard, get the right jobs (no matter if you like them or not), go to graduate school, marry, retire, die. Veer off the path and you are crazy. Veer off and you failed. Who makes these rules? Seriously, let’s take a minute and ponder, who on earth has real authority on what’s what? Not even our hundreds of deities across time agree. Does your neighbor, boss, parent, friend, you name it, know? Interesting question.
If we could ask Scipio why he did those things back then, I can assure you the answer wouldn’t be “because I was supposed to.” The answer is broader, it has to do with what you value, what you want to achieve, and it has nothing to do with actually achieving it. It is about striving to be the person who dares. Failure comes as natural with daring as mediocrity with not daring. Every sacred text, myth, fable you can think of revolves around a central subject: Those who face challenges are rewarded and those who do not are doomed, or what Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” calls “the hero’s journey.” When Prometheus dared to steal from the gods, he suffered greatly, but his daring brought the precious gift of fire to the world. When Hercules dared to embark on a soul-searching journey, he faced great dangers (the symbol of the battle with the lion) but came back a hero.
If you look closely, the emphasis always falls on the journey. Our modern way of looking at reward is in a professional, physical or monetary way, which leaves out the psychological rewards, meaning growth as a reward. No sacred text talks about money or titles, they talk about values and wisdom. Here is the problem with our perceived difference between success and failure today, if you look at them like this there is no difference. Those who journey ahead are rewarded in many different ways, and facing up to the challenge is in itself the reward. Thinking like this could allow us to be braver. If we seek to dare for the sake of daring, fear of mistakes evaporates. What would we attempt? Would we be more daring with our lives, our careers and our dreams? Whether failure brings regret, frustration, laughter, anger, or sadness, it often opens us up in a new way if we let it. Every “hero” operates this way.
Hopefully by looking back to our personal and collective history, we can agree that the relativity of what we are living is extremely questionable. Instead of blindly and literally following our religions and myths, maybe we should look deeply at the message and what it is actually trying to tell us.
When I catch myself ruminating about my supposed expectations, I try to remember that we are a 1-in-400 billion odds of existing species, living on a giant rock shooting across space. What is even “real?” Nobody really knows anything. The hero can always start over as long he is being true to himself. The “what if” will always linger.