The virtues of failure

Charles Pépin, born in 1973 in Saint Cloud, is a graduate and professor of philosophy at the prestigious Sciences Po institute of Paris, the alma mater of many generations of top political and business leaders in France. He has written almost twenty books and is a frequent speaker in the French media. In February 2015 he published “La Joie”, his first novel, where he recreated the character of Meursault, the main character of “L’Etranger” of Albert Camus, by placing him under the same tragic circumstances in 2000.In 2016 he published “Les vertus de l’échec”; a 225 pages-treaty on the value of failure as the critical motivation to achieve ultimate success in many arenas.

“What have Charles de Gaulle, Steve Jobs and Serge Gainsbourg in common? What brings together J.K. Rowling, Charles Darwin and Roger Federer, or also Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison or Barbara?

They have all had great successes. Yes, but not only that. They have failed before succeeding. Better: it’s because they had failed that they succeeded.”

Thus starts his discussion about the value of failure in the lives of humans.

He courageously criticizes the educational mission of French institutions where the “fast track” or rapid success is enthroned as the ultimate arbiter; he daringly compares it to the prevalent philosophical thinking in elite places like Silicon Valley where the opposite “fail fast” dictates just the contrary. In France a business or professional failure is an albatross hung around the neck of the disgraced persons while in the USA the same event is regarded as a sign of maturity, an indication that they won’t repeat the same mistake.

The name “crisis” derives from the greek verb “krinein”, which means “to separate.” In a crisis two elements separate and create a sudden opening; that brings a chance to discover something different. The Greek philosophers called “kairos” that special moment where a new reality appears to all of us.

“To acknowledge that the crisis is a ‘kairos’ is to consider it as an occasion to understand what was hidden, to read what was previously concealed.”

That moment of crises and subsequent re-evaluation might be the function of the state of depression in humans as we are forced to stop and change gears.

“The symptoms of the depression indicate that there is something under the hood of the conscience, something to illuminate or light up or understand.”

The names of “writer” and “author” have evolved from “augere”, a Latin term that means to increase, to originate, to create. Writers, as well as all artists are people that create something new in a long, arduous, spiritually exacting process. Pépin says that creators have experienced the ups and downs of the artistic process where they often fail to achieve the outcomes they were ardently seeking. But those failures make them more humble, a good starting point to progressively create something that will end up being of higher quality. “It’s of little importance the number of times that we fall as long as we bounce back up another time, that we get up more the wiser.”

Being an educator, Pépin is very interested in the state of French education, which he compares to more successful systems like the one in Finland. The small Scandinavian country has been ranked number one in the PISA study. He enumerates the reasons for its pride of place in the quality of education:

  1. There is almost no impact of socio-economic differences over results
  2. Little differences between institutions
  3. High degree of satisfaction from students
  4. They have time until they’re 9 years old to learn how to read
  5. The first year is dedicated to the rise of individual capabilities and curiosity
  6. They are not graded until they are 11 years old
  7. From 7 to 13 years old, they share a common study program
  8. When they are 13 years old, they can start building their own program by choosing six subjects
  9. After they are 16 years old, they are free to design their own program
  10. Educators enjoy a large degree of freedom
  11. The national expenditure on education is just 7% of the GDP

The Finnish system unmasks the disseminated fallacy, common in Western mass media, that by providing more funding to the educational system, its quality will improve as a result. It takes much more than money. The Finns do not waste time in obsessively working on the weak points but rather focus on the strong points by finding and supporting the students’ inner talent.

Pépin has the guts to discuss the writings, and quote from them, one of the most misunderstood and maligned thinkers of all times: Friedrich Nietzche. In his essay “Second Hurried Consideration” Nietzche lambasted the vain erudition that treats knowledge as it were a decoration for display, only to be occasionally dusted as does an antiques dealer with its precious inventory.

The critical question is not “what I know” but rather “ what I am going to do with it.” Nietzche distinguished two ways of using our knowledge:

1 – The instinct of fear: we use our knowledge to reassure us and hunker      down in a rationale of strict proficiency.

2 – The instinct of art: the mission of our knowledge is to propel us in life, into action, into the perpetual re-engineering of our endowment.

Pépin compared the relative immaturity of a newborn human being with the readiness of most animals at birth, whose instincts take over immediately. Contrary to humans, the animals do not have the unique luxury of failing and try again, lest they expose themselves to death by accidents or predators.

“What we find at the species level is also evident at the individual level too: the more we fail, the more we learn and discover. Given that our natural instincts are not strong enough to dictate our behavior, we proceed by successive essays, thus developing reasoning and know-how. Inventing, making progress.” The process of learning through our mistakes is the basis of our individual as well of our collective experiences, i.e. the civilization.

To assess the lessons learned through the process of failure and success, Pepin discusses two opposing philosophical perspectives:

1 – The existentialist wisdom: to fail is to ask ourselves what we can become. Inspired by the writings of Jean Paul Sartre, it assumes that there is no pre-determined limit to the intellectual development of human beings.

2 – The psychoanalytic wisdom: to fail entails to ask ourselves who we are, what are our secret desires, to reconnect with our profound truth. This perspective is prodded by the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.

Faced with this dichotomy, he believes there are three courses of action:

  1. Choose our philosophical camp: either the total freedom of Sartre of the psychoanalytic determinism of Freud.
  2. Distinguish the periods of life: in our younger years the concept of unrestricted freedom, in spite of being intoxicating, might be more attractive; however in later years, the question of faithfulness to ones values might me more important.
  3. A middle ground could be to try to reinvent ourselves as much as possible while remaining faithful to our core identities.

The third proposition has been inspired by the famous sentence of Nietzsche: “become what you are.” Become: don’t give up after failing, keep trying. What you are: never relinquish what is really important to you, the desire that makes you special.

Overall this is an excellent philosophical discussion of the practical benefits of failure and the inalienable right of students to be allowed to fail; it is the only safe pathway for continuous personal and professional improvement. For all those involved in the various form of education, the message is clear: encourage your students to find new venues, staying faithful to their values.

The major “defect” I found reading this book is that it takes for granted the American educational system as being imbued of the logic of the “fail fast.” Unfortunately there are two institutionalized tracks in the USA: one for the privileged elite/middle classes and another one for the poor/ minorities. What rings true in San Francisco might not be the same in nearby Oakland. As there are two Americas, there are two systems.

Reading some of these passages I went back to my teen reading of “Le Défi Americain” by Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber, which warned about the business and educational advantages of the American society. Some of his predictions came true but not to all the layers of modern society. Perhaps we should invite Charles to make a parcours of the USA, like De Tocqueville had done when it was a young republic in the early Nineteenth Century, in order to assess our strengths and weaknesses.

Pour quoi pas?

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.