Jonathan Hall

It’s Not Failure; it’s an Invitation. 3 Stoic Responses to Failure

Jonathan Hall
It’s Not Failure; it’s an Invitation. 3 Stoic Responses to Failure

Trying is the first step towards failure and for Grammy award-winning composer Eric Whitacre, failing is what has taught him the most. As long as we are in pursuit of a goal, failure is certain, but doesn’t have to be negative or final. And even if we don’t achieve, there is still value to be obtained from the deteriorating moment. On a compositional level, the inception of writing a musical piece is when it's the most fragile; at any given moment the piece could fall apart and many times it does. As for Eric, redefining failure is a major ingredient in the recipe for his success. And because of this, those pivotal moments of the writing process when the music may not make it, he knows exactly how to respond: it’s not failure, it’s an invitation [1].

The stoics understood failing and suffering perhaps better than anyone. Seneca reminds us that “difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” A very reasonable pathway to success means not only going through very difficult times, but expecting and embracing them and using them for character development. Because we have the ability to adapt to situations, we are able to grow and develop ourselves in spite of the conditions, as Epictetus says “make my mind adaptable to any circumstance.” It is not reasonable to expect success without falling short, coming up empty or hitting rock bottom. To trade a life replete with failure with one of only success, would not only diminish the human experience, but mug us of opportunities to maturate virtue. This Faustian bargain would leave us empty and ultimately indifferent to an authentic human experience.

When failure happens it’s an invitation to:

Be Objective

We live our lives through inference and induction: today is the same as yesterday, which is the same as the day before. This idea presupposes the consistency and rationality of nature. Because the universe is orderly, we have something objective to align our thoughts and actions to. But here’s the catch: the force (logos) that governs and regulates our physical world is brute and impenetrable. To fight against the logos, is like the dog who pulls against the moving wagon or Sisyphus who pushes for one last time or the substitute teacher who expects West Point in the inner city gym class. It is what it is -- the proverbial tautology -- requires adherence if we want ultimate freedom (the irony of it all is somewhat at our expense).

Failure then, is an opportunity to see the circumstance through an objective lens for what it actually is, in accordance to reality. Things will impede our actions, people will get in our way or sometimes we just aren’t good enough. If our happiness is contingent only on success or the good moments, we are doing ourselves a massive disservice, in part because an unreasonable expectation has been established. In a speech to PGA touring rookies Tom Kite says it best:

“If your going to play on the Tour, you have to love golf all the time,” he said. “It’s not going to work if you can only love it when everything’s going your way, every putt’s going in the hole, and every carom is bouncing into the fairway instead of out of bounds. It’s not going to work if you practice every day and only love it when the ball is going where you’re looking. You’ve got to love it when you practice day after day and you can’t find it. You’ve got to love it when every putt looks like it’s going in and then lips out. That’s what it’s about.” (How Champions Think, Bob Rosella) [2]

Marcus Aurelius reminds us that “it doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as hurtful; I can choose not to,” and from Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

You won’t always get the promotion, win the game, save the marriage or build the corporate empire. But tomorrow is a new day and a new chance to try again with a new approach, new method or to do something entirely different. No matter what, you can still love life and appreciate the mystery of it all, because you are a participant in the cosmic drama -- a drama governed by a chain of cause and effect.


With just a few seconds left in the fourth quarter, down by 1, Bennett Moehring lined up to kick a 48 yard field goal -- something he had routinely done before. Only this time, it was in front of 68,000 live fans, broadcasted nationally in front of millions, in heavy snowfall and in one of the greatest rivalries in college football -- the annual Army-Navy game. If he hits it, game over, victory sealed...glory forever.

Wide left.

During the days following the game, Bennett engaged in the bitter process of reflecting on what happened. Other kickers, former Navy players, fans and random strangers offered messages of consolation and hope. The warm sentiments he was receiving were in concert with the developing feelings he began to have about the situation.  However, one message in particular, Bennett would disagree with: “This field goal doesn’t define who you are.” wrote a Highway Patrol officer from Kansas. The soon-to-be 21 year old had already decided to use the missed field goal to help define exactly who he is -- an overcomer who will not be held hostage by the scenario, rather ransom the situation for self-betterment.

The self-evaluation process begins when we quiet the external distractions and settle the mind to a dispassionate state. From within, we make assessments of our role in various circumstances measured against the standard of objective reality. In these more breathable moments, the impartial spectator inside of us not only excavates the meaning and purpose out of situations, but develops a plan for moving on. Marcus Aurelius: “Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” And yet, evaluating yourself with humility and honesty isn’t just consigned against the backdrop of failure, but, as Dostoevsky (in a surprisingly slim bit of stoic incongruity) reminds us that “what seems bad within you will grow purer from the very fact your observing it in yourself.” [3]

As for Bennett Moehring, the failure to hit the game-winning kick was actually a good thing. He is learning how to deal with disappointment and the value of choosing to how to respond to situations he has no control over, because as Epictetus write, “Circumstances don't make the man, they only reveal him to himself.” Success would have brought immediate gratification, but failure will blossom into a more enriching experience.

Practice Humility

In 1936 nine Americans were faced with yet, another obstacle. After setting an Olympic record in the previous qualifying race, it was automatic they would receive the more favorable lane 1 in the gold medal race. However, in an insidious manner, the German Olympic Committee had implemented new never-before-used rules for lane selection where the fastest team was put in the worst lane -- lane 6. Faced with choppy waters and heavy crosswinds the boys, like so many other times, would conquer this too. [4]

The 1936 USA Olympic rowing team wasn’t made of professional athletes with a potent pedigree of competitive rowing. They were young working-class men chiseled out of the Great Depression who overcame every disadvantage that came their way, both as individuals and as a team. Set in lane 6, racing against the Germans in front of Hitler and seventy-five thousand fans and with their most powerful team member struck with a debilitating illness, the boys from the remote Pacific Northwest would show the world what true grit really means.

With every obstacle that arose, the boys remained content and acted with stoic discernment. They weren’t afraid off loss or failure, because of their humble and onerous personal narratives. Of course the stoics intentionally and actively engaged in behaviors that promoted humility long before this. Marcus Aurelius saw his food for what is was -- dead animals. The wine he drank -- simply grape juice. And even the distinguishing imperial color he wore -- sheep wool dyed in shellfish blood.  

Much like afflictions, the stoics would not allow pleasures to control them either; always remaining humble and seeing things for exactly what they were. Epictetus, perhaps the most cynic-like of the stoics, forbade pleasures and sought to live a life independent of them. However, Seneca accepts what life has to offer, so long as the pleasure doesn’t control you or the pursuit of virtue -- more of Cyrano de Bergerac then Don Giovanni. Humility calibrates the soul with reality. Humility sustains the vision to have perspective. Humility is the pathway to bursting out of any situation.

1. JW Pepper Interview - Eric Whitacre.
2. How Champions Think. Bob Rosella
3. The Brothers Karamamoz. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. The Boys in the Boat. Daniel James Brown. information for this section was collect from this book. Highly recommend everyone read this book.