Dasgupta with the Dalai Lama
Life lessons: How to succeed with failure
Civil Society Reviews
SOME months ago, this magazine published a tally of young students who had taken their lives while preparing for competitive exams in Kota, Rajasthan’s coaching-centre city. They had either failed or given up under pressure.
The deaths we added up were for the previous six months and that was depressing enough. It was worse to think that such deaths had been happening for a long time and that their number continues to go up.
Putting the tally together was relatively easy. Each death had been reported in the newspapers and there was a public record staring at us. But the reports were all two and three paragraphs and you would have to look for them in the hierarchy of the day’s news.
It is as though there is little space for failure even when it results in the tragic death of a young person. By contrast, toppers in examinations are feted with their pictures published, parents interviewed and life stories elaborately told.
So, what is it about failure that coming to terms with it is difficult? How should success itself be defined?
Is failure part of the journey to success? And given that only a few enjoy meteoric success, and the vast majority among us struggle along in lower orbits, how can we develop a more equanimous attitude to success and failure?
Amit Dasgupta has tried to explore these questions in Why We Fail. For an economy caught up in uneven change and growth the book has relevance in present-day India. Some people are getting ahead but there are those who are being left behind. Many may not be able to catch up at all. What’s in store for India if it can’t temper success and be less discouraging about failure? How can its vast base of human resource be better utilized?
Weighty as these questions are, Dasgupta’s is a little book that is easy-paced and almost conversational in tone. It is the kind of read that doesn’t tax you, but makes you think.
Dasgupta is mostly in chat mode. He doesn’t preach and his style is anecdotal. He shares his thoughts on a subject that has clearly interested him for a long time.
Societies that don’t evolve to dealing with success and failure pay a complicated price. By focusing narrowly on extreme success, they encourage outliers, but leave out a broad base of talent and potential. The majority turn into a sea of mediocrity, unmotivated and devoid of passion. It should be a goal that people have the opportunity to contribute widely and at their own pace.
But discovering the secret of dealing with life is finally a personal thing. Is it to rise above life itself with a Zen-like acceptance of things as they happen? Or is it about personal ambition and a hard-driving style?
Dasgupta has a vast canvas of examples that he places before us — from Lee Iacocca to Master Hakuin. Iacocca rescued the iconic American car company, Chrysler, and took it to great heights. But then he became so obsessed with himself that he began to believe he was infallible. Finally, the company he had rebuilt so successfully crumbled under his ego. His success proved to be his undoing.
In complete contrast to Iacocca, Master Hakuin, the Zen monk, takes life as it comes. Accused by a young woman of fathering her illegitimate child, he is at the receiving end of the anger of villagers. They tell him to take the infant and look after him. He responds with equanimity, saying, “Is that so.” It is not a question, just plain acceptance of the situation.
He takes the infant and looks after him till one day the girl repents and together with her lover discloses that they had framed the monk. The villagers rush to apologize to Master Hakuin, who hears them out and says, “Is that so” while handing the infant back to them.
The chances are always high of being carried away by success and one’s own importance, as happened with Iacocca. Becoming an impassive monk in a material world is a tough number. But can a bit of both come together so that one modulates the other? Perhaps the solution lies in being a little more ‘Is that so’ — without a question mark.
The reason for failure is the pursuit of success as defined by others. Replace that with a purpose in life and everything changes. The external world doesn’t matter and one is secure in oneself. Success and failure are then no longer juxtaposed. It is only the journey that matters.