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We are all failures. Every one of us.
That’s not always how it looks, of course. Other people seem so successful. Their own PR machines paint a positive picture. They are perpetually “excited” on Twitter about their new project. Their photos on Facebook show them looking happy and smiley.
Seen from the outside, our friends always seem to be earning more money than us. They have bigger houses and go on sunnier holidays. And we are surrounded by images of wealth. All I see when I walk the streets of London are fleets of black jeep-like cars everywhere, which has the effect of making me feel like a failure because I am skint.
Add to that the sense that my contemporaries all seem to be writing best-selling novels or acting in Hollywood films or making tons of money somehow or other, and the sense of failure can easily creep up on you.
But if only we knew what failures other people felt, then we would not feel like failures. As Dr Johnson wrote in the mid-18th century: “All envy would be extinguished, if it were universally known that there are none to be envied, and surely none can much be envied who are not pleased with themselves.” Yes, and that even includes Johnny Depp. Can you imagine being an actor? Blimey, the insecurity of it.
Johnson’s advice was simple: drink, forget and take a nap. Sip the nectar of oblivion and conjure up happy fantasies while in a state of semi-slumber.
And what about the home lives of the rich and successful? Any amount of fame and money cannot compensate for bad relationships. Every life is full of joy and woe, probably in equal measure, so envy makes no sense whatsoever. In fact, to be envious at all shows a stunning lack of empathy, an inability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Everyone suffers.
Even the most successful man in the world doesn’t feel successful. Who has done better than Paul McCartney? But he said in a 2013 interview: “No matter how accomplished you get – and I know a lot of people who are very accomplished – you feel that everyone is doing better than you, that it’s easier for them. You’ve got to the top of your profession – you’re now prime minister – but you still get shit off everyone.”
Successful people are failures because they have dozens of failed projects behind them. We tend only to see the successes. I’ve been reading a lot of business books recently, and if there is one thing that all entrepreneurs have in common, it’s a stunning track record of colossal disasters. Failure and success, then, are the same thing. Two sides of the same coin.
It is said that all political careers end in failure. And the merchants, the city traders – they can lose fortunes as well as make them.
So how can we answer the question: what if I fail?
The only real answer is that we need to cultivate wisdom and to do that, we need to make space for quiet study. That, anyway, was the view of Aristotle. Like most of the ancient Greek philosophers, he believed that the answer to life was to “know thyself”; in other words, not to push yourself in the wrong direction, or to chase money or fame. He said that the life of a merchant was full of worry, and that the glories of a political life were brief and fleeting. The happy life, he wrote, was the contemplative life. If you can read books and enjoy doing nothing, you can always be happy.
Another great Greek philosopher was Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school. The Stoics were so called because they taught in the Stoa, the marketplace. They did not believe in getting away from it all like the Epicureans. They reckoned that you should put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and develop a detached attitude. Their trick was to imagine that you were flying into space and looking down on the world. From that distance, our little problems and issues seem like nothing more than vanity.
Failure is polite. To be imperfect is an act of courtesy to your fellow humans. In the same way, to appear to be hugely successful is an act of extreme rudeness, simply because it excites envy and jealousy in others. A friend of mine took to calling the glossy mag World of Interiors World of Inferiors because it made people feel bad. And this truth is admirably expressed in the title of Marge Simpson’s favourite magazine: Better Homes Than Yours.
Failures are lovable. Who is more popular: Homer Simpson or Donald Trump?
The writers of comedy can make us feel a whole lot better. They are almost the heirs to the Stoics. Comedy is all about disaster and failure and anxiety, and has a great healing power, by making us realise that we are not alone.
We’d also do well to remember that the admen out there try to make us feel like failures because it’s good for business. The world of trade, exciting though it is, thrives on negative emotion. It identifies problems in your life and then offers to fix them. Lonely? Go on Facebook. Afraid of missing the moment? Photograph it and put it on Instagram. Sexless? Try Ashley Madison. Anxious? Drink beer. Onion breath? Chew gum. The business owners have a vested interest in making you feel like a failure. Poor? Join my get-rich-quick scheme.
This is not necessarily an evil process. In fact, it is completely natural. After all, if it is dark, you can light a candle. Human life is all about the light and shade. I just think it helps to understand that advertisers deliberately appeal to our sense of failure in order to sell stuff.
What if I fail? It doesn’t matter. Who cares? Keep failing. It’s good for society, it’s good for you and it makes your friends feel better. What did Samuel Beckett say? “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”