A Stoic Response to Failure

The art of properly responding to failure begins by not being surprised by it. When Seneca wrote that “nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectation,” this is partly what he meant. The reason that so many failures are devastating to us—failed businesses, failed relationships, failed vacations, failed attempts to get across town in 15 minutes—is that we never consider that things could happen any other way but the way we wanted to them.

The Stoics spent a lot of time practicing ‘negative visualization’—meditating on what could go wrong, what the worst case scenario was, what would be outside their control. They did this, as I said, first to eliminate the unpleasantness of surprise. But they also did it so they could go into every situation with their eyes wide open—so they could properly prevent or adjust for a potential failure. The wise man is aware of all possibilities and prepared for all of them. In this way, there is no such thing as failure—simply outcomes.

But what does a Stoic do with an unpleasant outcome? They make the most of it. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

He meant that everything—good and bad—was an opportunity to practice virtue. The nightmarish failure is at the very least a chance to get familiar with misfortune. That business issue is a chance to manage your temper or teach something to someone. Traffic is a chance to learn patience and accept that things are out of your control. A rude person or a bad friend is a chance to do the right thing even when you don’t want to.

This is the Stoic way to see failure and misfortune. In my book, I shortened Marcus’s phrase to the obstacle is the way. Meaning that failure is just an opportunity. It’s a chance to be better, to do better, to start over, to revaluate, to practice—whatever.

Of course, there is very easy to say but much harder to do. I struggle with it—I’m not saying this as some master. I am explaining Stoic theory. It takes a lifetime of incremental progress to get better at it. One situation at a time, one heart-wrenching failure at a time, you have to ask yourself: “Ok. What am I going to do with this? How is this going to make me better?” And then you have to try. Each time you’ll get a little closer, each time it will become a bit more instinctual. Eventually it becomes habit, or reflex.