Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Praise of Failure?

I refer you now to COSTICA BRADATAN's intriguing blog In Praise of Failure, which just appeared in the NY Times' Opinion Pages. It features a great still of Max von Sydow as Antonius Block, playing Death in a chess game he knows he must lose.

Winning isn’t everything. Antonius Block, right, played by Max von Sydow, challenges
Death to a game of chess in the 1957 film “The Seventh Seal,” directed by Ingmar Bergman.


BRADATAN says "[t]here is a danger in our quest for a more perfect future — that failure will become obsolete."

He goes on to make a case for the importance of failure, saying that failure is significant for several reasons. He discusses three of them:
  • Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.
  • Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.
  • We are designed to fail.
While certainly thought-provoking, I find I am unwilling to agree with the author's premise. Allow me to propose the alternative I prefer. What is all-important is not failure, but struggle.

Obviously, the nuance is that struggle offers the possibility of success, even when failure is inevitable. Antonius Block knew he would ultimately lose the chess game, yet he chose to play on. I get the idea, but I find myself resisting. Replace fail or failure with struggle in the article, and suddenly, I could not agree more. To wit:
  • Struggle allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.
  • Our capacity to struggle is essential to what we are.
  • We are designed to struggle.
Karl Popper emphasized the need for "falsifyability" in hypothesis testing. We may not be able to "prove" that something is correct, but if we can demonstrate that the opposite idea is impossible, we will have extended the boundary of human knowledge by an amount epsilon. Tiny epsilons have kept thousands in PhD programs around the globe.    

Aristotle argued that the development of character is the highest aim of life. This point of view clearly favors the hard-fought victory over the effortless one. 

There must be the possibility of failure or a victory is meaningless. Does anyone care who made the 2008 Detroit Lions go from 0-15 to 0-16? Personally, I am more interested in the character of the coaches, players, and staff who played the 16th game of that horrible season with all the passion and grit they could muster. 

We are made to struggle against random odds and toward some often ill-defined future. We meet with varying degrees of success. The need for struggle implies that an easy life devoid of struggle would be relatively meaningless. This is my excuse for not becoming one of the idle rich. 

Struggle on! 

Hat Tip to long-time friend and frequent contributor MF/LT