Am I a failure?

Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


Over the course of many years (many more than I care to admit to) I have encountered people who have labelled themselves as “failures”. A most unfortunate label, which I find to be confusing because usually they are not failures.

Take, for example, my recent dialogue with Jason, who had withdrawn from his post-graduate university course. As a result of withdrawing, he had become depressed because he had deduced himself to be a failure. He told me that “because I didn’t finish my university course, I’m a failure”. His reasoning can be expanded to reveal its form:

P1. (premise) If I didn’t finish my course, then I’m a failure
P2. (premise) I didn’t finish my course
C. (conclusion) Therefore, I’m a failure (this conclusion brought about his feeling of depression)

Well, despite his reasoning being deductively valid, it didn’t sound right to me. So I asked him “did you complete your undergrad course?”┬áto which he responded, “yes”.

“That would seem to be a success, right?” I said. “Are you saying that if you didn’t finish one thing then you, as a person, are a failure? Would that not be inconsistent with your success in your previous year of study?”

He didn’t respond, so I told him about another friend who had given up university study due to a medical condition. I asked Jason if giving up study made my friend a failure, and he said “no”. We then agreed that sometimes people give up their study with good reason and this does not make them failures.

In talking through the counter-example we had refuted Jason’s first premise. His mistake was in taking a single event as a basis for applying the term “failure” to his entire person.

“Why did you pull out of your course?” I asked.

“Because of financial issues”, he said. “I have a family and to make ends meet I need to spend more time working. This has meant that I can no longer spend the time needed to complete my course work”.

Based on Jason’s situation, we developed a suitable alternative to his reasoning:

P1. (premise) If my work commitments mean I cannot finish my study, then I will withdraw from study
P2. (premise) My work commitments mean I cannot finish my study
C. (conclusion) Therefore, I will withdraw from study

This represents the reasoning that lead him to leave his study. When identified as such, it illustrates that he made a rational decision. His self-worth can remain intact, as it is not something that changes with day-to-day decisions, or with successes and failures, or with the opinions of others.

“When you pulled out of your course, were you acting honorably? Did you act with good intention?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “I had good reason for leaving. My family is depending on my income, so I need to earn more money.”

“Then it seems to me that your soul (or character) is healthy. And is this not what matters most?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said.

And we left our dialogue at that point. I have written this so that it may prompt other people to examine their life in the same way.

— Socrates


Composed by Brent Silby


Filed under Socrates' Meditations, Socratic Dialogues