If failure was a game of cricket, it depends on where you are to know how it feels. If you are the winning team (the one that didn’t ‘fail’) or its fan, then you are fine. But more often than not, you are not. You will find yourself on the losing side or as a fan of the losing side or sometimes even as the umpire. The thing about failure is that you can’t get used to it. Instead, it has this thing of springing up on you when you are least prepared. And most often it arrives in bulk quantities unless its a rare stroke of bad luck.
My first tryst with failure was when I was refused admission into 4th standard of my school because I did not know the local language (Kannada). It took me two months to go from zero theoretical knowledge of the language to 2nd standard level with a lot of help from people in my immediate environment. Subsequently, admission was offered on the condition that I would come up to 4th standard level within the first 3 months of starting school. In an instant, I went from being someone who couldn’t even be admitted to someone who they believed enough to bet a seat on! Obviously, at that time I didn’t realize what was happening. In retrospect, what it did to me was made me believe in myself that I could do something even if people believed otherwise. I feel it added a layer of rebelliousness which meant that if I heard someone didn’t believe I could do X or Y, I would put all my energy into ensuring that I could do that X or Y.

A string of failures

As I grew up, I faced a lot of failure. I aimed for the most premier institutes for my graduation, and ended up in a not-so-bad college. Was in the middle of the class throughout my undergrad – not really excelling, is it? My post graduation went the same way. Aimed for the most premier institute, ended up in a not-so-bad college. Again middle of the class throughout. Did not get selected on campus till my 13th interview! Changed 3 jobs within the first 3 years of my work life. So on and so forth.
Was/ Am I a failure? I don’t have definitive answer to that question. At one level, not really because at every stage that has been considered for evaluation – I know that there were thousands and lakhs (in some cases), if not crores, of people below me on the same parameters. On another level, with respect to my own aims and objectives where I landed is a compromise to what I had desired. A valid counter argument is that I may have gotten what I deserved and was aiming at unrealistic targets. So, in effect, what I ended up getting was not really a failure but actually a success (for the moment, let’s assume that success is the opposite of failure). But the question is not what I deserved or not (again another question for which I may never be able to find an answer), the question – am I a failure? – continues to remain unanswered unless we go deep into each event.
Micro analysis is not where I want to go with this. Rather, my attempt is to zoom out and look at how we, as a society of individuals, view failure. I want to understand how we conclude on failure so easily when I can’t make up my mind on my own life’s journey. It has been a few years since I arrived at this within myself. It’s a very peaceful place. I don’t have the burden of judging others’ failures. It is the lightness of understanding others’ journeys, discovering the nuances of the rationale they employed in certain situations, the non-negotiables and their value systems. The connection I formed with people when I spoke with them with an intent to understand than to blame has been unparalleled.

Within a non-productive society

The society that we have is non-productive from most points of view. The incentive system is inverted. The highest financial and social incentive is accorded to the film actors, politicians, and business executives. The lowest goes to school teachers and police. So, what do we get in this society? High quality entertainment and low level education and security. Large successful businesses with majority of youth in rural India being jobless.
When a Nirbhaya gets raped, we get a world-class documentary about it. Or when a Disha gets raped, RGV makes a movie. A politician gets people of a certain religion killed and he gets elected to the highest office of the country. A group of politicians organize a mob to destroy a place of worship to build their own on top of the demolished site. The majority of the country supports this politician and group of politicians – that’s some indication of quality of education, isn’t it?

Contextualizing failure

Failure within the framework of a society that in itself is a failed unit seems pointless to analyze. Failure is a function of time. You look at something that has happened (in the past) to glean out what went right and what went wrong. Ensure you can avoid the mistakes you made then in the future. And see how to move ahead. So, as long as you are able to take a continuum (The definition of continuum is a continuous series of elements or items that vary by such tiny differences that they do not seem to differ from each other) approach you are safe. Else failure as a brand can be a terrible downward spiral.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan, a famous American astronomer (NOT astrologer!), once requested NASA to turn the Voyager 1 towards the Earth and click a picture. Voyager 1 was speeding out of the solar system — beyond Neptune and about 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from the Sun — when mission managers commanded it to look back toward home for a final time. It snapped a series of 60 images that were used to create the first “family portrait” of our solar system. The picture that would become known as the Pale Blue Dot shows Earth within a scattered ray of sunlight. Voyager 1 was so far away that — from its vantage point — Earth was just a point of light about a pixel in size.

A Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers, as part of that day’s Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.

Pale Blue Dot Revisited. Feb 2020. Source: NASA website.

Carl Sagan wrote a book titled “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” which was a sequel to the legendary “Cosmos” written by the same author. Sagan also was a member of the Voyager Imaging Team. He had the original idea in 1981 to use the cameras on one of the two Voyager spacecraft to image Earth. He realized that because the spacecraft were so far away the images might not show much. This was precisely why Sagan and other members of the Voyager team felt the images were needed — they wanted humanity to see Earth’s vulnerability and that our home world is just a tiny, fragile speck in the cosmic ocean. [Source: NASA website]

Failure is that pale blue dot

My own takeaway from this picture is that we are so small and tiny in the larger scheme of the Universe that we become prisoners of time and hold ourselves at ransom and stress over a lot of things that over time are ultimately even smaller and tinier than that pale blue dot. So, considering anything as final seems self-defeating.
If you consider failure as final it is a bigger failure. Time moves on and things change. If you didn’t build a billion dollar startup in your current attempt, then there’s a next time. If you didn’t get into the college of your liking, keep writing that exam – you will get there. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Keep at it. It won’t get away from you.
Your ability to continuously get up and keep at it will be immensely motivating to those around you. And that will help in keeping people you want around you who will believe in you only because you don’t give up. At the same time, it is important to recognize when its a dead cause. to pivot or to change. That’s a call that the person at the center of such an operation should take. They know where they have reached. And where they will reach if they continue to plough away!

But this post has to end now!

Failure exists within a specific context and time. The context depends on the ever moving function of time. With time, the context changes. What was a failure once, might not be anymore. With time, you glean out stuff from failure to invest into your future. Look at everything – failure, success and everything in between – as a continuum. The resultant perspective enlarges to encompass everything that’s happening within a manageable circle of action and thought. Thus, nothing is debilitating any more. Keep moving. Failure will stay back while you move forward. And ultimately failure will become a small, tiny, fragile, pale blue dot.