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The effect of repeated failures on the self || IIT Delhi (2020)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
10 min
50 reads

Questioner (Q): In this age of competition, we try very hard for various types of exams, and sometimes it is possible that we come very close but may still end up on the losing side. If that keeps continuing, then won’t the repeated failures hamper our self-confidence? If they do, then how to deal with them?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Dealing with repeated failures is not a problem provided you are failing at something worthwhile. The more important question is, what are you failing at? Equally, the more important question is, what are you succeeding at? We just say, “I am successful” or “I am a failure”—why don’t we complete the description? What exactly are we successful at? What have we obtained? Or is it so that we didn’t bother to go deeply into that and we just went by the commonly, socially accepted definitions of success and failure?

Do what is worth doing and then failure would not mean so much to you. Equally, success too will not mean so much to you. It is the doing that will matter. You will say, “I am grateful I am getting to do what is worth doing. Success or failure depends on a thousand factors, some internal, some external, and I have no handle over all those factors. I may succeed or I may fail; I may have a great role in my success, or I may have no role in my failure.” All these permutations are possible. Sometimes, it is possible that you might be the architect of your success; sometimes, it is possible that you are a failure despite all your brilliance.

And you cannot really make this thing deterministic because the world, in that sense, is an open-ended system in which there are not only an infinite number of variables but also a constant flux of interdependent variables. How do you really control them or manage them? You cannot. The only thing you have some authority over is your own self. That self must choose what to do and what to pick. How does it decide what to pick? By seeing where its own incompletenesses lie.

“If I must be complete, if I must be restful, if I must be genuine and authentic, then what should be the nature of work that I choose for myself? Not work that makes me feel happy as I am, but work that challenges my insecurities, work that chisels me down, work that actually reduces me. Because what is it that I am additionally carrying? I am authentic, and additionally I am carrying a false sense, a borrowed sense of incompleteness. So, I need to choose work that will really challenge my weaknesses. I need not pick up work that is suited to my strengths; I must do that which I am really afraid of doing,” and that is the right definition of work.

Work is not something that you do in order to inflate yourself or to fatten your pockets. Work is something you engage in in order to challenge yourself, reduce yourself, beat yourself, and ground yourself to dust. That is the right definition of work.

And my humble advice to every young person who is about to choose a career or decide on work in life must keep this in mind. See what is it that really troubles you, really, really, and then work should be the medicine for your trouble. That is the way you must choose work.

Therefore, work is not something that you can choose as per the prevailing norms in your hostel or institution or family or country; work is something that you have to choose very individually for yourself. Just as one chooses somebody to love; work should be your first love. And the same principles need to be followed in the choice of your spouse as well. Choose a person who will challenge you, not someone who will pamper you, console you or tell you, “You are beautiful as you are.” And in the very same way, choose work.

Choose work that will really be difficult to handle. Because if it is difficult to handle, then maybe it will not offer you much remuneration, you will not be called an expert, but it will rid you of those parts of yourselves that are weak. In weakness lies fear.

Q: I want everything that I do to be perfect. Because of this, I end up procrastinating a lot of things and focus only on the minor ones that I do almost perfectly and feel satisfaction only in those things. I am not happy that I am not focusing on the important things in my life. How should I get out of this trap?

AP: No, you should be perfect in the perfect work. First of all, your choice of what you are doing needs to be perfect. If I make a very imperfect choice in the first place and pick up some trivial work to do and then excel in that trivia, what have I attained?

Excellence is important, but in the right field. What will you do by excelling in, let’s say, hunting rats? A fellow might say, “I am the world’s best rat hunter.” Some talent show will come and pick you up and say, “His name needs to go to the Guinness book. He is a great rat hunter!” Most people whom we admire as very talented people or high achievers are exactly this—rat hunters. No doubt they have excellence, but must we not bother to ask: Is this the field you needed to excel in?

If I present a number to you, some random number of, let’s say, six digits, and I say this is the money I am going to give to you and you have the choice to change any one digit in this number—it is a six-digit number, it is the money I am going to give to you, and you have a choice to change any one digit in this number—what would you do?

Q: Change the first one to nine.

AP: Change the first one to nine, straight away. So, you know where to excel. Why didn’t you change the last one to nine? Because you don’t want to be a rat hunter, right?

That is what most of us waste our life doing. If life is a six-digit number, we pick up either the last digit or the second last digit and we spend all our energy and time trying to maximize it. What’s more, we succeed in maximizing it. What do we get? The real thing never gets done, the top digit never gets addressed, because society has conditioned us to never look at what is the most important. That goes abegging, unaddressed, and we remain fiercely concentrated on the trivial things in life. And we excel there, and we are feated and admired, felicitated.

So, the delusion that we are somebody and we have achieved something gets even more reinforced. “I think I am somebody, even the society thinks I am somebody—see what kind of respect they are offering me! See, the magazines are carrying my pics and interviews. See, they are calling me the young leader of the decade.”

Before you excel, ask yourself, “What must I excel in? What is worth it?” Before you speed down a road, ask yourself, “Which road to take?” Speed comes later, choice of the right road comes first. It is far better to be slow on the right road than to be lightning-quick down the wrong road towards your own destruction.

I repeat, making the perfect choice is far more important than being perfect at the perfect choice. Pick up the right project even if you can’t initially excel at it. Instead, you are taught to choose as per your strengths, because that is what the society and the body want. They say, “Pick up something you can excel at.” That is a very, very bad way of decision-making. They say, “Identify your strengths, and make your decisions based on your strengths.” No, what you are actually saying is, “I cannot tolerate being bad at what I do, therefore I will pick up something I can be good at.” You are giving prime importance to your ego. You are saying, “If I am doing something, I must be good at it; else I will feel bad, I will feel low, I will feel insulted, and nobody will respect me.” No, no.

First of all, realize what is it really that must be done— must be done—and then pick it up even if you cannot excel at it. Slowly you will learn. It is far better, I said, to be slow on the right road than lightning-quick down the wrong road to your destruction. Being slow is alright; being on the wrong road is not alright. I am not saying that you should be deliberately slow; I am not saying you should be slow for want of effort; I am not giving you a license to be lazy. What I am saying is that the right goal might indeed be so demanding that you might not be able to excel at it, at least initially.

The right goal might not correspond to what your established strengths are. Therefore, you might find yourself struggling initially if you pick the right goal. It doesn’t matter, stay put. Stay put even if you find yourself failing repeatedly. All this comes in the domain of perfection. You are still perfect—how are you perfect? “Irrespective of my repeated failures, I have perfect patience. Irrespective of being beaten twenty times, I am still perfectly in the arena, I have not run away.” This is deeper perfection.

Perfection is not just about winning the championship quickly. Perfection is also about trying again and again, not running away, being the perfect loser. “I lose again and again, but I know that this battle is important; therefore I will stay put perfectly.” This is perfection.

Perfection doesn’t lie in the output of the work; perfection lies in your intention. Your intention, your direction should be towards liberation. That liberation itself is called perfection. As long as your intention is directed towards liberation, you are working in perfection. Even if in the eyes of the world you are a defeated one, even if the worldly scorecard shows you to be a continuous loser, you are still in perfection.

So, be in pursuit of perfection by choosing the right work, and the right work is that which leads to perfection. And then don’t bother about the results. If you have to lose, keep losing.

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