The Failing Master and Success

You may have noticed a certain internet meme featuring Yoda and this pithy saying:

The difference between a master and a beginner is that the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

I think there’s a lot to this, and it’s had me thinking about failure and success.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a beginner. In fact there’s even something called “beginner’s mind” which is very good indeed. But in this particular saying, being a beginner means never getting started, remaining at a standstill at the start of a journey you want to take, all because you are perpetually getting held back, or holding yourself back, by an aversion to failure.

The master, in contrast, having met with countless failures along the way, has traveled far on her journey.

What’s the relation between moving ahead in life, success, and even mastery on the one hand, and meeting repeatedly with failure on the other? Does failing somehow feed and propel growth? At least three answers come to mind:

First, in some cases failures really do directly propel growth. There’s a phrase for this you may have heard, “failing forward,” about which Lee Garrett has written an interesting and useful account. In these cases it’s not just failing, it’s how you respond to it: when the failure is learned from, it actually moves you forward and causes you to grow. Sometimes what you learn wouldn’t have been learned, or would have taken longer to learn, were it not for the failure, so these failures can actually speed you up in the long run.

Perhaps strictly speaking, we do (or at least can) somehow learn and grow from each failure. But in many cases I suspect failures are related to succeeding in a different way. Think about it: when you take an action with some goal or purpose in mind, even small ones, how much control do you have over the outcome? There are always so many factors, so many things that need to happen in the “right” ways, that our actions can’t always end up just as we intended. You can’t possibly take consistent action towards a goal without failures cropping up regularly – it’s an effect of moving forward. We should remember this. If you’re experiencing failures, these may be incidents to learn from, yet they may also simply mean you’re doing something! And maybe that’s how success works.

I think there’s also a third kind of case that some of us struggle with: sometimes you might feel anything short of ideal perfection is a “failure,” but these really aren’t failures at all. It’s the extremely normal and unavoidable phenomenon of, well, of not being Yoda. I’m joking a little, what I mean is most things most of the time are bound to fall short of the ideal. So this is perceived failure where in reality there’s only perfectly normal imperfection. In Logic-Based Consultation this is recognized as a “fallacy of emotional reasoning” called “demanding perfection.” Of course, that doesn’t mean it can be simply given up, just like that – who would suffer from perfection anxiety if that were the case!? – but it might be useful to ask, when you feel that you or someone else has failed, whether it is truly failure or simply normal, and basically necessary, imperfection.

How do you move ahead with failure?

By Philosophic Advisor Cleveland.


18 thoughts on “The Failing Master and Success

  1. Great quote of Yoda ! That’s more on the proverb – “Failure is the pillar of success.”

    Further is to figure out the lesson, shouted out by failure. Or does one even know how to learn from mistakes, the skill of which gradually makes a master out of a beginner ?

  2. Great quote of Yoda ! That’s more on the proverb – “Failure is the pillar of success.”

    Further is to figure out the lesson, shouted out by failure and how to do identify the correct path.

    1. Great point, that’s a big part of the “failing forward” strategy — learning the lesson and not continuing the make the same mistake.

      Thanks for sharing the “Failure is the pillar of success” proverb! I hadn’t heard that one before.

  3. Great blog! You’ve given me so much to think about here that my first comment will be somewhat unformed (but at least I’ve started down the path of trying to respond to this rich piece of writing). I know I’m going have to follow up on all the links you’ve embedded in your piece. (I’m especially intrigued by the notion of “beginner’s mind.”) Your use of the “journey” metaphor is especially intriguing for me. When I was in graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on the bildungsroman, the coming of age story, or the heroic “monomyth” as Joseph Campbell referred to it. Campbell wrote about how there’s always a “threshold moment” in all hero stories. All would-be heroes have to cross a threshold when they begin their transformative adventures. Some hesitate at the threshold. Others plunge ahead. The moment one crosses the threshold is the moment one dies to an old way of being. Like I said, it’s going to take me a bit of time and rereading before I can fully unpack your piece. I’ll have more to say later…

      1. Hi. I believe you are right. I think Joseph Campbell writes an entire chapter (or a portion of one) about the “reluctant hero” in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

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