On Self-Failure

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

I failed myself on Saturday. I failed to meet the standards I laid out for myself in my Project for Individual Excellence (PIE) by not authoring a blog post that day. I could tell myself that I was tired and that I fell asleep earlier than usual. I could tell myself it is okay because I had two flights that day and had to wake up at 3 AM. I could tell myself that I'll make several other posts in the coming days to make up for it. Regardless of what I tell myself, I still have failed myself.

Usually, when we fail at something, we fail according to the standards that somebody else has set up for us. When we fail an exam, we fall short of the requirements for "success" (or at least, non-failure) that are laid out by the examiner. When we sin, we fall short of the standards laid out by the deity (or the Church). When we miss our sales quota for the quarter, we fall short of a standard laid forth by a manager. Even when we let down our lover, we may (and ought to) feel that we failed ourselves, but we actually fell short of a standard to which they held us.

The clear thing about other-failure (as opposed to self-failure) is that there are usually clearer ways for rectifying the situation. Perhaps we can retake the exam, or can confess our sins, or can make up for the sales deficit elsewhere, or can buy our lover flowers and apologize (apology is itself an entire subset of study in moral psychology). We have failed to meet a standard, must at the very least recognize this failure, determine that we will not continue to do so in the future, and perhaps compensate for the failure (e.g., by giving flowers or a tithe).

Self-failure is particularly tricky in light of how we handle other-failure. The burden is on ourselves to hold ourselves responsible. We may choose not to do so and fail to recognize the shortcoming that we have fallen into (i.e., guilt can be one such way of regulating our own behavior, but even this is quasi-imposed by either outside parties or informal institutions like norms and mores. I do not consider such cases to be cases of self-failure). There isn't another person, entity, or group to which we can apologize (that is, given we don't hold some odd metaphysical belief about personal identity where we have two versions of the self at any given time). The standards to which we hold ourselves may not be clear. Even less clear are the mechanisms for making up for falling short (if they exist at all).

In my case, I am holding myself to this standard because I want to develop certain virtues and habits of virtue in my behavior. I recognize that I have fallen short of the requirements for success that I have defined for myself. Rather than beat myself up over it, I then resolve to make sure that this doesn't happen in the future.

I tend to blog in the evenings before I go to bed. I read in the mornings over coffee as I wake up. My thoughts are clearest at night and I am less-likely to make major reasoning errors in the late hours of the day. I also rush my posts. It may be 11:30 PM and I haven't yet written something for the day, so I write a poem, when I would otherwise explicate my theory of education further. It may be 10:00 PM after a very long day of travel and I may fall asleep at my computer without making any posts whatsoever (as what happened in this case). To rectify my shortcoming the other day, I am now resolving to make my blog post over breakfast every morning, and move my reading to elsewhere in the day. If I continue to fail to do so, then I'll have to reexamine the situation under which I blog every day, especially as my travel schedule picks up during the summer.

Self-failure poses this particular challenge to the individual: he cannot rely on others creating or defining a standard to which he must hold himself in light of failing to hold himself to a former standard. It imposes additional responsibility on us as individuals to go out and create the standards towards which we must struggle in our daily activities.

I'm Zak. I'm a venture capital professional and writer focusing on how to build a great career. You can find my writings here or reach out to me at zak@1517fund.com.

Other Posts for You

False Negatives and False Positives

One of my favorite ways of thinking about the world is by asking, “what are false positives? What are false negatives?” This is particularly useful