Updated: Jan 19
In our Western capitalist society, there is a systemic and deeply entrenched perception that forwards motion in a clear direction is indicative of 'success' whilst sitting still in a state of unsureness is indicative of 'failure'. This is amplified in so many of the conversations I have with people and with those I overhear; 'what is it that you do', 'what are you doing with yourself at the moment', 'what do you want to do' etc. More intrusively, this paradigm of a fully productionised 'self' or a 'doing-self' materialises itself through the social media that we consume, as this 'doing more', 'being more' and 'being better' is captured, made tangible and most importantly, made visible. Now, this making visible needs clarifying because in our drastically postmodern (if not post-postmodern) age, making visible actually means obscuring. Essentially, it is making visible a flat image of 'reality' that obscures the dense reality beneath the surface thus producing a paradox of (in)visibility. Consequently, this process of optimising the self against arbitrary social standards proliferated through channels of false visibility, leads to a fundamentally skewed perception of what it means to be both 'successful' and 'unsuccessful'.
Before delving into the issues of 'failure' and 'success', I first want to address the subject of (in)visibility. For instance, what does 'being better' or being 'the best' actually look like and how do we measure it? I think this comes down to how we discursively signify and signpost success: 'I'm getting a promotion', 'I'm exercising more', 'I'm finally climbing up the corporate ladder', 'I'm reading more books', 'I'm running further', 'I'm accumulating more money', 'I'm getting higher grades', 'I'm improving my performance', 'I'm jumping higher','I'm decreasing my drug consumption', 'increasing water consumption' etc etc. Notice the language: 'more', 'further', 'higher', 'greater', 'increase', 'decrease', 'improvement' etc. Now these could all be the result of a failing in my descriptive capacities, or they could be the result of my own perception of what I believe 'being better' looks like. Either way it boils down to how we materialise our understanding of success in discourse, because ultimately, language shapes how one thinks about the world and how we think about the world shapes language. It's the classic chicken and egg effect I suppose, though I do think the discourses circulating around us shape our reality and our perception of it much more than we, as individuals, actually use language to resist and reshape the normative reality those discourses have established. (This is where I could go on a sprawling diatribe regarding the way in which language tangibly impacts and shapes socio-political reality. Language is not simply something empty that is written on a page nor is it empty air spoken out into more air. Language is heavy, it is substance, and it creates reality. Rewrite the narrative). Diatribe aside, if language, which is a tool of power (Foucault coming in here), brings into being our reality then no wonder our perception of success is so fundamentally skewed. Essentially, the language we attribute to success often sits within the semantic fields of motion and measurement and this is no surprise when you contextualise this discursive trend in relation to the Western emphasis on perpetual material growth and consumption.We are conditioned to want more, be more, be better, and are likewise obsessed with making that progress visible or tangible through material mediums.What therefore gets left out of our linguistic 'making' of success is the notion of stillness and quietness.
My university dissertation looked specifically at the ethics of 'difficult' poetry and of poetry where language purposefully coagulates (here drawing on Sianne Ngai's brilliant notion of aggluttonative language) to trap the reader into a state of stillness. Of course, the impulse is to get frustrated and say 'I'm stuck', 'I'm confused', 'oh fuck off, this is a meaningless pile of elitist trite (quoted from my father)' and finally 'I've failed. I don't understand'. This is the problem I'm driving at. Not understanding something is not failure. Being stuck is not failure. Being confused and not knowing, is not failure. Conversely, I suggest that there is an ethical and moral dimension to difficulty and stuckness, in that it teaches you stillness, and it is precisely this stillness that allows you to shift your perception, to stop and to rethink, to adjust, or to simply enjoy the fact you do not and cannot know everything. One of the beautiful things about the world and about human beings is the unknownable vastness of both entities (here I am thinking of Walt Whitman's conceptual understanding of the self as a multitudinous, ever-evolving accumulation of its endlessly rich surroundings). So, when you begin to think about the self and the world from this angle, rather than thinking about the self as a constrained vehicle always 'heading towards' or 'optimising against' something, then being uncertain becomes a source of huge plenitude and opportunity. My point or perhaps my call is that we need to shift our perceptions, and our feelings towards stillness and loss. Sometimes, losing everything you have, not knowing where you are going, or who you are, or what the poem means, can lead to a vast amount of growth, and yet this growth comes precisely from having to dwell in the dark (to borrow Keats’ terminology). In fact, Keats goes as far as seeing ambiguity and mystery as a great source of beauty, and I really believe this is something we can live by. Have you ever, for instance, been with someone and been so overwhelmed with a feeling for them that you can't even begin to put it into language? You want to say 'I love you' but it's too much and too little. This is because we are, as Geoffrey Hill explains, 'mysteries to ourselves and mysteries to eachother' and there is something so wonderful about having so much depth that even language fails to capture it.
I have digressed, as I always do, but notice how failure to capture meaning, and failure to express or understand or know or progress are all translatable to beauty, plenitude and gain when you start to perceive of stillness differently. Having quit a job that I hated, I have been left, for the first time in my life without anything to optimise myself against and my god have I had days of spiralling into chaos, beating myself up, telling myself I have failed. Retrospectively, I think this is because for the first time, I not only have a huge number of roads open to me, but it is also the first time in my 22 years that I have been made to stand still and say 'I really don't know what I'm doing'. Essentially, I have been in a state of perpetual forwards motion and with a very clear direction in each case: get the A*, get the 1st Class Honours, get the black belt, get the trophy. Yet, ultimately, the get 'that', be 'this' mentality didn't prepare me very well for life because life doesn't work like that. Life isn't a straight running track with a start and a finish (I mean actually it is on a level of mortality (birth and death) but the track isn't straight or simple, I can tell you that much) This period of stillness has not only allowed me to understand what makes me happy, but it has left me a lot of time to think about how I've operated and constructed myself throughout my life. More importantly it has brought me face-to-face with failure, or at least my perception of it. When I left my job in recruitment for a number of reasons beyond my control, I blamed myself. When my relationship broke down during the pandemic, I blamed myself. When I felt I had been assaulted, I blamed myself. Then I ask, why should self-blame and indeed blame have ever been a reaction to these processes? Then I get to the conclusion that I blamed myself because I saw all of these instances as failure and specifically, my failure, and when something fails, the human impulse is always to blame something or someone.
Whilst I do think there is a lot of value in learning to take responsibility for failings in your life, there is a difference between taking responsibility and self-blame, the latter being deeply problematic and self-destructive. When things as complex as jobs, relationships and sex 'go wrong' or 'fail' it is rarely ever simply one party's fault yet, because I was so used to being in forwards motion, I simply blamed myself, internalised the guilt and plodded onto towards the next relationship or job or shag without actually stopping to ask 'was that fair?', 'why did that go wrong', 'why was I unhappy', 'how did that happen' or 'what can I do to avoid that again'. For the first time in my life, I have been made to stand still and to think, 'what makes me happy' and crucially, 'what does success mean FOR ME' as well as more generally. My stillness has therefore led to a huge amount of growth and whilst it's been a fairly heavy and miserable process, it has felt cleansing because it is the first step in adjusting my perception of what failure and success really mean. Of course, unlearning 22 years of forward motion mentality is going to be difficult, but at least the penny has dropped. So, in a world of so much plenitude, so much mystery and so much opportunity, I suggest you sit a while in the darkness and consider that murky stillness to be a great success.