Failure’s ROI

I follow all kinds of people (and some bots) on Twitter. I read all sorts of blogs and books. I rarely watch TV anymore but I know what happens there. I’m an information omnivore, so I keep a pulse on our culture. I hear the drone of one theme in our modern world: Success. I witness  it when parents talk to their children, when self-help authors pimp their latest books, when social media gurus give their readers variations of the same pep posts. Success! Success! Success!

Here’s a fundamental problem: we all, one way or another, fail to live beyond a few years. That’s a big failure when you think about it, at least from a certain angle.

And living forever in this world isn’t the only thing we fail at. We fail at a great many things. We fail at the things we’ve never experienced. We fail to see truths set in front of our noses. We fail everyday and fail to see those failures.

Our culture’s obsession with success perhaps speaks more about our fears than it does about our ambitions. Why is there such a fear of failure in our culture? Why is it shamed so much in our schools (where it’s sometimes used as a weapon), in our homes, in our workplaces, in our communities, in our media? I think we are paying heavy prices for our failure to experience failure.

You see, if you spend your life without any intimacy with moments of failure, with death, with loss, then you set your life upon a course of disappointment. Our culture’s obsession with success is really an obsession with only one part of our passion-complex: our desire for pleasure, be it the pleasure of pride or accomplishment. But we have other emotions, other spaces we all are born to inhabit: like grief.

It’s important to grieve. We don’t like to talk about death because we don’t know how to grieve. We don’t like to talk about failure because, ultimately, we don’t know how to grieve. A culture, or a person, who spends every moment focused on success never gets to practice grief. As you get older, that grief (which is a garden) dries up unless tended to once in a while.

A healthy culture welcomes grief, clutivates it, and in the process grows successfully. It doesn’t talk about success: it just does what it loves to do, which is to ensure that its members live fully. The ancients, for all of their insane or brutal rituals and habits, cherished things we seem hell-bent to banish. They appreciated the beauty that surrounded them, respected the mystery of existence and were keenly aware of the dangers inherent in life’s turbulent flows. For them grief itself was a gift.

Fast-forward to our evolving world of social media.

We’re all still trying to sort out what it means to live in a streaming, “real-time” state of affairs. One thing we know is that things are getting faster and faster and the rate of acceleration is accelerating. Which is to say, things are more likely to fail than succeed. This is an important thing to know in the 21st Century.

The more you’re willing to face your fear of failure, the better your chances of succeeding at the important things in life. Take a close inventory of your failures and thank them.

Don’t be so brainwashed by our culture’s insistence on success. Our general culture is itself a failure. Which is why it’s so obsessed with success. Be wary of calls to “climb to the top” or “fly high”.

Angels fall fast from the sky. But roots grow deep in darkness.

Tend to your garden of grief. One day, or one long night, you will find yourself alone in that garden and nothing that you accomplished will accompany you in your dark time.

The question you should be asking yourself right now: Will the flowers deep down in my bed of grief be dead when I need them or will they be fresh enough for me to have things to care for?

It’s OK to fail. The universe gives you that permission. Don’t let the Success Fools fool you into being only a half-human.

Being a fully-grown human being takes a lot of failure and grief. Invest in being human. The returns are priceless. Literally.

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Advice for the Bipolar Hearted

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Bipolar affective disorder might be one of the most common afflictions among some of the most productive members of society. In fact, much of what we find most exciting about our civilization owes some measure of debt to the accomplishments of talented people who happened to inherit a disordered genetic trait. Unfortunately, the cost of this elusive illness is higher than its apparent benefits.

Somebody you know or work with (or for) probably has bipolar illness. You know famous people who have the illness. Every once in a while you hear about a suicide that seems to have come right out of nowhere. It most likely was due to manic-depression.

Successful people that you look up to have the disorder. Sooner or later, however, that person’s illness will take a nasty downturn.

Contrary to public mis-information, most people who have some form of bipolar illness are functioning, productive and otherwise healthy contributors to our world

Still, the illness is lethal. It crashes career parties. Bipolar illness has demolished good, hard-working and intelligent people’s lives. The stigma that our society loves to stamp around is just about as dangerous. (More on that in a future post, so subscribe here for updates.)

So, what do you do if you’re a successful lawyer or neurosurgeon or entrepreneur with bipolar disorder?


Well, if you have bipolar disorder, or know someone who does, I’d like to share some pointers about how to live a good life in spite of the illness. Having worked a bit in psychiatric nursing, I learned a few things from some amazing patients. Here’s some advice to those of you have have bipolar disorder and would like to remain healthy and productive:

  1. Sleep. Lack of sleep is both a symptom and a cause of hypomania
  2. Keep taking your medications, especially when you think you no longer need them
  3. Keep up with psychotherapy if only to get feedback on your mental status
  4. Don’t glorify hypomania: depression always shadows hypomania
  5. Don’t over-pathologize your illness: accept it, treat it and keep your life in perspective
  6. Attend support groups and include your family or most trusted friends in the loop
  7. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks: it’s an illness, not a punishment
  8. Keep a mood chart up-to-date and show your doctor and therapist
  9. If you find yourself suddenly dabbling into religious or alternative philosophies, be suspicious and talk to your therapist
  10. Understand that you and your illness are two different things
  11. You don’t always have to be productive: accept the fact that you will need downtime
  12. Know your pressure points (aka triggers): determine what sets you off and develop simple tactics for cooling off

This list can go on and on. I’ve missed a lot, perhaps you can add your suggestions to the comments below.


Some of the brightest, most successful people I have met in my life turned out to suffer from the disease. Some of them went undiagnosed for decades. They spent most of their lives in a mild form of hypomania and never experienced depression. For them, when their illnes caught up to them, their depressions were utter hell.

When people who have bipolar illness enter depression, it’s a much more hellish experience than it is for most people. Imagine: you’re sky high, everything in life feels to be going for, your libido is fully charged and satisfied. Then: slam, the door shuts, the lights go dim and life conspires against you. Could you handle that? Could you go on? Of course, you could: but most likely, without help, without knowledge, without hope, you could find yourself right in the center of Dante’s Inferno.

So, to you who have this illness: don’t give up. Don’t kill yourself. We need you. You, and your ancestors who carried the genes that you inherited, have made this world so much more interesting, in spite of the illness. If you’re up: be careful. If you’re down: be kind to yourself and get help.

To you who don’t have this illness: be aware that the manifestation of bipolar illness is all around you. Traces of it are in the art you view; the movies you watch; the music you love; the books you read. You need to start caring for these peoples’ lives. You have much to learn and much to lose when these beautiful people leave our world out of painful desperation.

These days, fortunately, we no longer have to let good people die from a bad disease. Bipolar disorder is not a character flaw, nor a punishment, nor a justification for ignorant stigma. Neither is it something to glorify. Hendrix said it best: Manic depression is a frustrating mess. But it doesn’t have to kill you or end the beating hearts of those you love and who love you.

Learn more at NAMI and become a hero. If you think this post is useful, please use the ShareThis button below to email or otherwise share it.

Disclaimer: none of this is medical or other professional advice. It’s just some chicken soup. If you or someone you know is in crisis, just dial 911. Thank you.



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