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Strength to Fail

'The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?’ Beyond Good and Evil

Nietzsche talks a lot about suffering and its necessity for a life of fulfillment - of happiness, even - for how could one experience the heady sweetness of true joy if one had not tasted the bitter cup of suffering? But this is not just a matter of contrast, like some kind of hedonic rollercoaster - like I can only enjoy a decent night’s sleep in a bed by spending innumerable nights on a cold, hard floor (ah, a soft bed - we get used to the good things so easily).

And it's not just about putting in the hard yards to earn the benefits either, like studying conscientiously for a qualification, though that is a good example of suffering that is instrumental to some worthy goal.

It is also not about our engrained ‘protestant’ ascetic ideal, believing that life should be tough and people must be made miserable in order to be granted a little leisurely respite at the weekend - a sabbath, as it were.

No, the most basic, pervasive, gnawing, mundane and consequently the most intolerable kinds of suffering we generally experience are boredom, petty embarrassment, niggling self-doubt, lack of conviction, purposeless, poor motivation and low esteem. These are such insidious and grinding forms of suffering because they are so dry and inconsequential - they are anything but heroic. No one is cheering you on to peel yourself off the sofa and get shit done. There are no medals. There is no intoxicating taste of victory. There is no sense that you have realised some kind of untapped potential. Inspiration is lacking.

Let us concentrate on one kind of petty suffering - one that is unbearable for most of us - the vague sense of humiliation that comes from failing publicly, from looking like an amateur. And yet the truth is that no one is born great at anything. All excellence requires work, and in order to improve and keep improving, to out-do ourselves over and over again, it is necessary to fail continually. If you are not failing, you are not working at your limit, for your limit is defined as that point where your abilities are no longer adequate.

Let us say that you have chosen to swim as a way of strengthening your body. Perhaps you have established a habit (recommended) of going to the local pool several times per week. Maybe the times you attend are relaxed free-swim sessions, with just a lane or two cordoned off for those who are seriously putting in lengths in a concerted way. Well, within a session or two you must join the serious swimmers in the designated lanes.

Even better, if there is a session for more capable and committed swimmers, you must switch your swims to those times. You will now be surrounding yourself with swimmers who are likely be faster than you; more capable than you; more graceful in the water. Perhaps you are not able to do a proper front crawl yet, or some other stroke. You will worry that you look like a fool - an amateur. Others are overtaking you in the lanes. It is embarrassing. You are out of your depth and do not belong here. You feel like the overweight person walking into the gym, beset by that almost irresistible desire to turn around and walk out. People might be criticising you for getting in their way, or even laughing at you. The truth is, some of them probably are!

Deal with it.

The best and quickest way to improve in any activity is to surround ourselves with people who are better at it than us. This is uncomfortable. How much better do we feel when we are amongst the cream of the crop? But being the best in the room does not help us improve. We need to feel the sting of inferiority without running away, without hiding ourselves.

Another get-out: you may be lousy at the front crawl but pretty good at the breaststroke. So what do you do at the pool? You swim the breaststroke when it is the crawl that needs attention. You would rather look credible that actually improve yourself.

Don’t do it.

What you are being challenged to do here, is to put yourself in that most uncomfortable position of being and appearing inept alongside experts - and bearing it; bearing it for a long time and over and over again. This simple recommendation is so incredibly difficult to implement that if you manage it, it is a mighty achievement. Nietzsche talks of the inevitability of suffering, but it is these small, everyday sufferings that can be some of the most difficult to endure. They feel so petty and pointless and they are so easy to dodge.

Gradually, in any activity, you will get better and as you become more and more capable - you should again seek to put yourself among a new, higher elite. Love being the worst in the room, then everyone else is there to help you develop, whether they know it or not. Wound your pride. Get angry. Ignite your agon! Suffer the embarrassment, the humiliation - the envy. Find yourself getting better more rapidly than you ever could have otherwise.

Do it once for 30 minutes. Go home and write up what happened, how you felt, in your journal. Tell yourself that you are choosing failure as the optimal path to success. Resolve to go back for more. This is your experiment. The first of many. Embrace being what Nietzsche describes as 'the great experimenter with himself’.

Embrace failure. Learn to dwell in it – to love it. That is a sign of real strength.

‘What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? So asks the weight-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength. Is it not this: to debase yourself in order to injure your pride?’

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

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