The Failure of Success by Jennifer Kavanagh
Reviewed by Jerry Peterson
Probably few Quakers would be surprised by the idea that Western society is immersed in a culture of success and celebrity. In this book, Jennifer Kavanagh takes a deep look at the meaning and implications of success in our culture – what it is, how it is measured, and the meaning of failure. She explains how success is generally understood today as the achievement of something attempted or the attainment of a desired object, with particular reference to the attainment of wealth or position.
Kavanagh examines several issues and problems that arise when we identify ourselves too closely with our own successes and failures or with the successes and failures of others. Success and failure do not exist in their own rights, but only in relation to one another and to some kind of measure or expectation of ourselves or others. The emotional, spiritual, and material costs of our culture of success and its frightening shadow, failure, are high.
The author explains that the achievement of success is measured either against a standard or against the achievement of others. Certainly, healthy competition improves performance. However, competition can also narrow a person’s view down to a singular focus on defeating others. Differentiating between these two goals – producing quality work and defeating others - can sometimes be difficult, but Kavanagh shows the importance of maintaining this distinction.
In a very real sense, success is not what is seems to be and neither is failure. We often consider an individual who claims success as having achieved some final result or having reached a state of completion. The truth is that much innovation and many creative ideas are embedded within processes. Often, a person who is celebrated as a great success is in reality just another link in an ongoing chain.
Failure is not what it seems to be either. One great insight of the spiritual life is that failure can help us reconsider our projects and direction and make necessary adjustments – if we receive our human experience of brokenness (failure) constructively. At a spiritual level, failure, dark times, and trauma can challenge us in significant ways and open us to change – not just change in our outward actions, but in our very selves.
Kavanagh concludes this book by looking at mystical, religious, and philosophical attempts to deal with the paradoxical nature of dualities, by examining the duality of success and failure. For me, this book furthered my own quest to deal with paradoxes by offering me concrete verbalizations of concepts I am increasingly coming to understand from my own experience.
I think that Friends will find this book of interest. With the continuing increase in income inequality in our world and with our culture’s increasing emphasis a “winner take all” mentality, this little book provides some much needed perspective. ~~~
The Failure of Success was published by O-Books in 2012 and is available in paperback and electronic formats. Learn more about the author at www.jenniferkavanagh.co.uk.
Jerry Peterson is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, CO.