A new perspective on ‘failure’ – effort vs. results


On the ‘Results’ page of my website Maths Made Elementary I go to great lengths to emphasise ‘effort’ before ‘results’ when it comes to your exam preparations.

Your effort and preparation are what you control. Your final results on the other hand, although influenced in large part by the effort you put in, are not completely within your control. That is unless you happen to occupy the privileged position of a judge – a person whom I once heard referred to as “a law student who marks his own examination papers!”

I am reminded of the words of that great ancient Greek stoic philosopher, Epictetus: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens” and “remove aversion from those things not in your control.”

Even when all conditions for success are present, one can still fail. But not if all conditions are present and one tries over and over again. In fact, how much more noble is a glorious failure when compared with a lucky success? For myself personally,  I’d much rather have all conditions present and fail than have none of the usual prerequisite knowledge and skills necessary and, by some miracle, achieve a pass. In the words of the sixteenth century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.”

Now it’s true the vast majority of people may well be afflicted with a strong outcome bias, but that doesn’t mean those few of us possessing a keener insight, capable of penetrating deeper beneath the superficial appearance of things, need be similarly afflicted.

The essay I have posted below can also be found on my website at http://www.mathsmadeelementary.co.uk/effort-vs-results.html. However, as this is my blog page, I thought I’d introduce this essay with a few additional bonus paragraphs by way of an introduction just so that you don’t feel too short-changed by duplicate information I’ve posted elsewhere.

Effort vs. Results and a New Perspective on ‘Failure’

I end my introduction to the ‘Past Results’ page on my main website by reaffirming my conviction that it’s the effort you put in that really counts in the end. The results are merely useful for ensuring that your effort is well directed. A useful metaphor I came up with when thinking about this is to compare your effort with that of a boat and your results with that of the boat’s rudder. If it’s your effort that will keep you afloat and sustain you, then we can at least credit your results with providing the necessary feedback you need to steer a progressively truer course.

In these ‘modern times’ of ours there seems to be an excessive and unhealthy obsession with results, outcomes, appearances, status, honours and with ‘being first’. This obsessive mind-set is a failed perspective in my view and one which makes it all too easy for us to lose sight of what’s really important. It fails to perceive the relativity and subjectivity inherent in all things, and it’s typical of the anthropocentric outcome bias clouding the cultural zeitgeist today.

The fact is you can’t have a first place without a last, or indeed a last place without a first. For that matter, first place owes its very existence to last as does last place to first. The two are mutually dependent entities with the existence of one being predicated on the existence of the other. In fact, anything that exists can only do so in the presence of its opposite, and the deeper you explore these ‘yin and yang’ concepts, the more you find the differences between the opposite extremes to be nothing but an optical illusion created by the inescapable subjective bias of the ego – the infinite and the infinitesimal; life and death; large and small; tall and short; black and white; north and south; hot and cold; happy and sad; pass and fail – all two sides of one coin. For that matter, if my words sound foolish to any of my readers, they can surely be grateful for my folly since it provides them a background behind which they can contrast, and take the measure of, their own perceived good sense!

When we break through our one-sided, dualistic perspectives, we finally grasp the meaning of Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” or Kipling’s advice concerning ‘triumph and disaster’, namely “to treat those two imposters the same”. Only the limiting and dualistic handicap of human bias leads us to favour one extreme over its opposite.

But do not think that in attempting to break down what I perceive to be false distinctions between even success and failure, I am devaluing or belittling the aspiration to aim high in all your endeavours. That is not my intention at all. I just think we can make a sincere best effort in all our undertakings without burdening ourselves with the unnecessary delusions, and subsequent pressures that come with taking these undertakings too seriously within the grand scheme of things. As the philosopher and self-proclaimed spiritual entertainer, Alan Watts, was often fond of saying, “I’m not serious, but I am sincere.”

As for myself, my ability to step back and laugh at the silliness of my own goals and ambitions has never been an obstacle to my sincere pursuit of those very same goals and ambitions. It only requires that we become capable of holding two opposing points of view (or diametrically opposed attitudes) both at once: the first to approach all our endeavours with deadly seriousness, and the second to laugh at the folly of the first – a sort of functioning, cognitive dissonance.

“No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately.”

Michel de Montaigne

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let me leave further investigations into eastern philosophical thought and meta-logic aside for a moment and return to another pair of opposites, namely ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but failure is a large part of success, and not just in the existential co-dependency sense I attempted to elucidate above. As with the rocket which makes its way to the moon by means of a series of tiny errors and deviations in course trajectory offset by tiny readjustments, success then becomes almost a thing for you to fail your way towards. The great American inventor, Thomas Edison, summed it up best and most amusingly in my view with the following remark:

“Failed? I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways it won’t work.”

Not many of us are capable of summoning quite the same reserves of perseverance and resolve as Mr. Edison, whose genius was to be found as much in his ‘perspiration’ as his ‘inspiration’. Nevertheless, I think his words serve to demonstrate the fact that you can pass failure many times on the road to success. Furthermore, on reflection, you may well find that you learnt more from your failings, disappointments and adversities in life than you ever did from your successes. When viewed in this way, there’s no reason why you can’t turn your failures into a highly effective fertiliser for growth which will steer you progressively closer to your goals.

“Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.”

Francis Bacon

“Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.”

William Shakespeare (Henry VI)

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.”


So put the emphasis on your effort and do not dwell too long and hard on unalterable past results aside from the utility they serve in helping you make tactical and well-directed adjustments. If you stick to your task, results will inevitably follow your efforts in any case, so there’s really no need to preoccupy yourself with anxiety over final outcomes. If you pass, then great! If you fall short, then pick yourself up, dust yourself down, learn from it and resolve to do better next time – to really focus, apply yourself and become the hard-working disciplinarian you need to be to correct past mistakes and achieve your best. After all, you only need pick yourself up one more time than you’ve been knocked down. Or worded in the manner of an old Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

In conclusion, I hope I’ve made a convincing and rousing argument for the positive message to be found even in the midst of our so-called failings; perhaps even a case for failure to be considered merely a matter of perspective. And for those of you ever finding yourselves in need of a pick-me-up in the aftermath of such failures, as you may subjectively perceive them, whether academic, personal, career-related, sporting or some other, perhaps you’ll remember to pay another visit to this essay for a few uplifting reminders.

I leave you with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek words of Samuel Beckett:

“Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better!”

About Melluvahess

My name is Sean Maguire and I am the founder of Maths Made Elementary. I provide expert one-to-one maths tuition within North London to lower and upper secondary level students studying at Key Stages 3 and 4. For more information about me, and the services I offer, please check out my website www.mathsmadeelementary.co.uk
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