The vital importance of failure

It may be tempting to believe that the purpose of life is success.

However, what is the basis of that success? What does it mean to be successful? And how do I know what success is or what defines success?

When I look sincerely, I see that my ideas about success are all based on assumptions and habits. I have no absolute knowledge of what success really is.

In other words, when I blindly obey my notions of what success is and I strive toward that, I have no way of knowing that I am actually doing something good, noble, or even ultimately desirable.

In fact, if I tell the truth, all evidence is that quite the opposite is true. Because despite my compulsive efforts to be successful – even despite my apparently achieving what I thought would produce success – I don’t seem to have gotten whatever it is that I thought success would be.

I thought success would remove doubts, fears, anxieties, insecurities, etc. And it is true that sometimes in a relative way it seems that I can achieve that.

But in a larger sense, the same quantity of insecurity remains. And that insecurity is even magnified.

When I honestly evaluate my success in achieving success, I have to admit that I’ve failed.

And this failure is the first opening to something beyond the mind. Beyond blind compulsion. Beyond the limitations of the dead ideas of salvation.

Most of us are trained to avoid this failure. Or, rather, to avoid admitting to the failure. We are taught to “think positive” or keep on trying.

But what if I embrace this failure instead? Or what if I even give up the notion that I can embrace the failure since it is far too big for me to get my arms around. So let me surrender to it and be embraced by it.

Find out with me right now. Perhaps you can notice that right now you are tired of trying so hard to win, to be right, to succeed. Perhaps you can notice how difficult and exhausting it is to keep trying to believe that you’re going to win despite all the evidence that you don’t even know where you stand.

If so, you can do this experiment with me right now. Just tell the truth about the exhaustion and hopelessness…and how scary it is to tell that truth.

It is scary. So you’re not doing it wrong if you feel that fear. Or anger. Or frustration. Or sadness.

Now, let’s admit the deeper truth, which is that we don’t even know what it would be to actually succeed. All the ideas we have about it are fantasies which, if we imagine them to their conclusion, result in the same empty dissatisfaction that we already have now.

If everyone in the world agrees that I am right all the time…If they all approve of me all the time…If my body behaves exactly as I want it to all the time…Even if I can have good feelings all the time…

…Still, there is something lacking. Still I am not completely satisfied. Still I am seeking something else.

So let’s tell the truth: all the ideas of success are incorrect.

What are we left with now? Only what is.

What is, does not necessarily comply with what I think should be. And that seems threatening. Scary. Terrifying.

I might be emotionally hurt. My pride might take a hit. I might be uncomfortable. I might be humiliated. I might even experience bodily pain. Even death.

So many possibilities. So many possibilities that don’t fit with my ideas of success.

But my ideas of success are unsatisfactory. So I am doing this experiment. And hopefully you are also.

The experiment is to simply allow what is. And that means whatever is. Regardless of how it matches up with my ideas of success or what “should be” or what is acceptable.

I strongly recommend you don’t read further until you have done the experiment for yourself up to this point. That is to say, at least for a moment give up all effort. And just see how miserable and pointless all the compulsive effort is. See that all the compulsive effort is only aimed at trying to keep away what has been deemed unacceptable – the discomfort, fear, anxiety, frustration, hopelessness, etc. And see that in this one moment of no effort – not trying to get anything or get rid of anything – completely defenseless – what remains. What is really here when no effort is made? When there is no effort to succeed in any way, when all failures are allowed, what is here?

Please don’t read further until you have done that much sincerely.

What is here? Does what is here need any success to be? Is what is here diminished by any failures?

Or is it paradoxically the case that the more “failure” is allowed without any effort that what is here becomes clearer and clearer?

I may have thought that what I wanted was freedom or peace. But because I was aiming to succeed in achieving those ideas of freedom of peace, I overlooked the ever-present, unconditional reality of freedom and peace here now.

Yet in this moment now, making no effort, allowing all “failures”, meeting every disappointment, fear, anxiety, worry, sadness, anger, etc. without making any effort at all…what is found?

The surprising reality of true freedom, true peace. True freedom is the freedom which allows everything, including failure. True peace is that which makes no war, instead receiving everything as it is.

This true freedom, true peace, is here now. And it is discovered through the gateway of failure.


  1. I tried your experiment. I noticed that my body relaxed, as I had been unconsciously keeping my stomach taut. I noticed a lot of sensations I associate with sadness. I noticed my relaxed and open body could contain the sadness. I noticed a resistance to allowing the sadness to flow. I felt a peace that was Ok with the sadness. Then I felt the sensations move up from my stomach, up to my face and tears roll down my cheeks. Thank you for this article. I shall explore it more later. I think having a little reminder every now and then to do the experiment – like a mini pause – will be helpful. Thanks.

  2. Yes, in “receiving everything as it is” lies the key, in my experience.
    I can increasingly see that “as it is” does not mean “as I perceive or interpret it.”
    It seems there is a nakedness which knows nothing, and does not need to, yet is open to all that is going on in my body and around me. This happens when self-reflexive thinking drops away.
    It can happen when I use your reminders, such as “what if this is my deepest wish, fulfilled?” Then it takes a while for the thinking to subside and the nakedness to make itself known.
    At other times this happens spontaneously – and that feels so encouraging. Something seems to be doing the job FOR me.

  3. Interesting post. I do find myself admitting that I give up in certain areas that used to be important to me, mostly because experience has shown me that I failed to achieve those things. On the other hand, success has occasionally occurred, probably more due to chance or circumstance than my efforts alone. Does this mean I see the benefit in allowing that I have failed? Perhaps in the letting go of all that constant trying. Certainly in the vague feeling that maybe I’m not in charge after all. What a relief that would be, if fully realized! But still….I keep trying with some things. And this post has made me more aware of that. Thank you for writing it.

  4. Great post Joey! One of my favorites of yours. I deeply resonate with surrendering to failure and resting in our experience of what is happening in this moment. I have been experiencing the active side of surrender. I realized that I had been equating surrender with passivity. It is an easy mistake to make. But so much is learned through acting and failing. We made our first bid on a home yesterday in an insanely competitive market. A series of failures brought us to this place. So many challenges and stresses in looking at many homes. Yet, each failure offered learning and lessons, a step toward a bit more clarity, and also increasing comfort in staying vulnerably uncomfortable in the unknown.

    I have no idea if this place we bid on is to be our home, only the rightness of making the offer and putting my whole heart behind it. Whichever outcome happens is the best and right one. It is freeing to be open to both possibilities and to no long equate success as obtaining. Success is in the goodness of listening to something undefinable that is not my ego, and taking heart-centered action. Our culture is confused in thinking that success lies in outcomes and attainments. There is truly is nothing to achieve and attain. As you wrote, when one fully settles into this, one receives what is always already here. The surprising reality of true peace and real love. I hope you and your family have been surviving this bitter cold winter. Thank you for freely offering your wisdom. I look forward to seeing you in warmer times!

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