Failure and the Tyranny of Success
BY MARK TWIGHT (from Gym Jones)
Many sports, and climbing in particular are treated as goal-oriented rather than experience-oriented undertakings. All goal-oriented activities have failure as their antithesis. One gains access to the lessons and spirit of sport by doing the sport and for the intelligent athlete the value of these lessons is not dependent on success. In fact, one often learns more about oneself and the sport by failing.
To be sure, a game contested by two teams for points emphasizes winning or losing on the day. The day is a test but the path leading to it is one of fear and overcoming (or not) and ultimately, self-knowledge. This path is that of growth so it has no start, and no finish. When it is walked like it has a beginning, middle and end, with achievement and success and a sense of “having arrived” as the sole auditors of good work done and knowledge gained, the athlete learns to fear failure. To evolve rather than simply repeating oneself, to truly live one must learn how and when to fail, and understand that failure is a necessary component of self-knowledge.
The gifted athlete who sails from one success to the next with little effort or training knows nothing of himself or how he might behave when truly pressured. Physical talents are a dime a dozen. So what. Those talents, when tempered by hardship, failure, suffering and eventual overcoming, bolstered by dedication and persistence make an athlete whole, an individual well-rounded. The athlete who experiences only success or deludes himself into thinking of failure as success (to preserve a fragile ego) can never be whole. Any feeling of mastery should be a cue to move on, to search for increasing difficulty. Success does not breed humility.
At Gym Jones sport is the “Way.” Athleticism and its expression are tools of self-knowledge and growth. Success and failure go hand in hand, each highly valued and necessary, each treated respectfully. Though our athletes use several different sports of differing intensity, duration and complexity to test themselves the outcome is the same: evolution, both physical and psychological. To prevent stagnation training challenges are varied, pressure and difficulty increased. We present new movements and combinations and stresses to maintain an interesting level of discomfort and apprehension. If the athlete is not nervous before a session it is likely too easy. If the athlete does not occasionally experience a breakdown or loss of control during training the stimulus is inadequate. It is important for the athlete to “pass through” in training, to face apparently insurmountable tasks, confront uncomfortable situations, to be transformed by overcoming.
In this sense, training is accorded importance beyond simple diversion or recreation because the tests – contests – sometimes involve great risk; whether fighting on a mat or in a cage, climbing a mountain, running into a burning building or toward the sound of guns. Shortfalls — whether physical or psychological — are punished and because of this, failure and the loss of control are addressed in training.
Failure is common in contests between man and nature and when individuals face each other in combat, unarmed or otherwise. Failure also audits the individual, internal contest between expectations and reality. Those who strive fail but a healthy attitude towards failing and towards learning keeps the balanced athlete from considering him or herself a failure. When I was actively climbing I learned ten times more from every failure than from any success and that knowledge gave me the confidence to return to a mountain and attempt it again, or to try bigger, harder routes several years in the future. The skills and confidence spawned by failure allowed me to progress instead of repeating myself, and personal evolution is the ultimate goal of my participation in sport. In this context success and failure are the same thing, though one feels a bit better than the other.