Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Success and Failure - the mega Carrot and Stick - such seemingly powerful dictators so easily deposed.
Freud wrote that all neurosis has a foundation in an unconscious need we have to punish ourselves. Much of that unhealthy impulse may arise from mistaken understandings of failure and the deception that “success” defines goodness and instills happiness. The fear of failure also makes almost any kind of creative innovation impossible. Failure defines our uniqueness, opens doors to insight, and creates an infrastructure for creativity. Much of the success in our materialistic world is based on getting people to like us. Part of what makes a sage wise is not caring if people like us or not—at least not letting approval-seeking change behavior. Sages steep in authentic presence, humility, and compassion. Materialistic success relies on deception, arrogance, and greed. Instead of killing the messenger and punishing ourselves for failures, we could appreciate and welcome them as as wise and very personal teachers.

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Quotes (87)

“He could not look farther than the moment… He met the event as it came and so events buffeted him and blew him about”

Lavinia 1
Prophetess and co-foundrer of the Roman Empire

Themes: Illusion Failure

“Every man carries two bags about him, one in front and one behind, and both are full of faults. The bag in front contains his neighbors' faults, the one behind his own. Hence it is that men do not see their own faults, but never fail to see those of others.”

Aesop 620 – 546 BCE
Hero of the oppressed and downtrodden
from Aesop's Fables, the Aesopica

33. Know Yourself

“When you succeed, be one with success. When you fail, be one with failure.

Lao Tzu 老子 1 via Shan Dao
from Tao Te Ching 道德经 Dàodéjīng

23. Nothing and Not

“The only real failure in life is not being true to the best one knows.”

Buddha गौतम बुद्ध 563 – 483 BCE
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
Awakened Truth

Themes: Failure

“Those who win success, think deeply before doing anything. Those who suffer failure, avoid contemplation and make few calculations beforehand.”

Sun Tzu 孙武 544 – 496 BCE via Shan Dao
(Sun Zi)
HIstory's supreme strategist
from Art of War 孙子兵法

“One skilled at battle takes a stand in the ground of no defeat… the victorious military is first victorious and after than does battle… And so one who is skilled cultivates Tao and preserves method.”

Sun Tzu 孙武 544 – 496 BCE via Denma Translation Group
(Sun Zi)
HIstory's supreme strategist
from Art of War 孙子兵法

Themes: Integrity Failure

60. Less is More

“To live is to die, to be awake is to sleep, to be young is to be old, for the one flows into the other, and the process is capable of being reversed.”

Heraclitus Ἡράκλειτος 535 – 475 BCE
(of Ephesus, the "Weeping Philosopher")
A Greek Buddha

Themes: Failure Butterfly

“The wisest of the wise still fail.”

Aeschylus Αἰσχύλος 525 – 455 BCE via Shan Dao
The Father of Tragedy

Themes: Failure

“Achievement is the beginning of failure. Fame is the beginning of disgrace.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周 369 – 286 BCE via Thomas Merton

Themes: Success Failure Fame

2. The Wordless Teachings

“Since nothing is permanent, why become so attached to success and failure?”

Lie Yukou 列圄寇/列禦寇/列子 1 via Zhang Zhan (370 CE) / Eva Wong
(Liè Yǔkòu, Liezi)
from Liezi "True Classic of Simplicity and Perfect Emptiness”

“Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.”

Ovid oʊvɪd 43 BCE – 18 CE
(Publius Ovidius Naso)
Great poet and major influence on the Renaissance, Humanism, and world literature

Themes: Failure

“When defeat is inevitable, it is wisest to yield.”

Quintilian 35 – 100 CE

Themes: Failure Strategy

“People who are favored are honored. And because they are honored, they act proud. And because they act proud, they are hated… Hence sages consider success as well as failure to be a warning.”

Wang Zhen 809 – 859 CE via Ralph D. Sawyer
from Daodejing Lunbing Yaoyishu, The Tao of War

13. Honor and Disgrace

“No self is the Way. Success. Failure. I don’t see how they differ.”

Lu Huiqing 1031 – 1111 CE

23. Nothing and Not

“The tongue is very small and light but it can take you to the greatest heights and it can put you in the lowest depths.”

Al-Ghazali أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الطوسي الغزالي 1058 – 1111 CE
(Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali)
Philosopher of Sufism

Themes: Success Failure

“Struggle is over; gain and loss are assimilated. I sing the song of the village woodsman, and play the tunes of the children.”

Kakuan Shien 廓庵師遠 1100 – 1200 CE
(Kuo-an Shih-yuan, Kuòān Shīyuǎn )
Most popular Ten Bulls artist/poet

from 10 Bulls

“By their failures lovers are made aware... Lack of success is the guide to Paradise.”

Rumi مولانا جلال‌الدین محمد بلخی 1207 – 1283 CE via Helminski and Rezwani
(Rumi Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī)
from Love's Ripening

Themes: Failure

“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?”

Dante 1265 – 1321 CE
(Durante degli Alighieri)

Themes: Failure

“These are the soulless whose lives included neither blame nor praise.”

Dante 1265 – 1321 CE
(Durante degli Alighieri)
from Divine Comedy

“Natural means free from success and therefore free from failure… If the wise do succeed or fail,there minds are not affected.”

Chiao Hung 1540 – 1620 CE
(Jiao Hung)

Themes: Success Failure

23. Nothing and Not

“Words mean traces. Traces mean knowledge. Knowledge means presumption. Presumption means involvement. And involvement means failure.”

Deqing 1546 – 1623 CE

Themes: No Trace Failure

43. No Effort, No Trace

“No one will gain all without having lost all.”

Madame Guyon Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon 1648 – 1717 CE via Thomas Taylor Allen
from Autobiography of Madame Guyon

Themes: Greed Failure

“I didn't fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.”

Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790 CE

Themes: Failure

“As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.”

Lord Byron 1788 – 1824 CE
(George Gordon Byron)
The first rock-star style celebrity

Themes: Failure

“Message to his son’s teacher: 'Teach him the wonder of books but also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and the flowers on a green hillside. Teach him it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat.'”

Abraham Lincoln 1809 – 1865 CE

“The strength of a beam is measured by its weakest part, of a man by his strongest..”

George Henry Lewes 1817 – 1878 CE
English philosopher and soul mate to George Eliot
from On Actors and the Art of Acting (1875)

Themes: Failure

“Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.”

George Eliot 1819 – 1880 CE
(Mary Anne Evans)
Pioneering literary outsider

from Middlemarch

Themes: Failure

“Liberty is poorly served by men whose good intent is quelled from one failure or two failures or any number of failures”

Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892 CE
Premier "poet of democracy" and model for Dracula
from Leaves of Grass

Themes: Failure

“what is success without failure? what is a win without a loss? what is health without illness? you have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other. there is always going to be suffering. it’s how you look at your suffering, how you deal with it, that will define you.”

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 CE
(Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
America’s most famous author

2. The Wordless Teachings

“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all.”

Samuel Butler 1835 – 1902 CE
Iconoclastic philosopher, artist, composer, author, and evolutionary theorist

Themes: Failure

“Losers visualize the penalties of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success.”

W. S. Gilbert 1836 – 1911 CE
Innovative, influential, inspiring dramatist

Themes: Failure

“A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else”

John Burroughs 1837 – 1921 CE
Literary naturalist

“A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions--as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.”

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844 – 1900 CE

Themes: Success Failure

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work… Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

Thomas Edison 1847 – 1931 CE
America's greatest inventor

Themes: Mistakes Failure

“The line between failure and success is so fine. . . that we are often on the line and do not know it.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE

2. The Wordless Teachings

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE

Themes: Failure

“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.”

George Bernard Shaw 1856 – 1950 CE
UK playwright second only to Shakespeare

“Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.”

Nikola Tesla Никола Тесла 1856 – 1943 CE

“Optimism is a kind of heart stimulant—the digitalis of failure.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE
from A Thosand and One Epigrams, 1911

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

John Dewey 1859 – 1952 CE
The "Second Confucius"

Themes: Failure

“If you can lose, and start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss;… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it”

Rudyard Kipling 1865 – 1936 CE
Greatest—in-English—short-story writer

Themes: Failure

“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”

H. G. Wells 1866 – 1946 CE
A father of science fiction and One World Government apostle

“We know that our dreams are not realizable; but it is useful to have dreams in order to see them come to naught and to learn by their failure.”

Marcel Proust 1871 – 1922 CE via Justin O'Brien
Apostle of Ordinary Mind

“How you think when you lose determines how long it will be until you win.”

G. K. Chesterton 1874 – 1936 CE

43. No Effort, No Trace

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965 CE

Themes: Success Failure

43. No Effort, No Trace

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965 CE

Themes: Success Failure

13. Honor and Disgrace

“A man is a failure who goes through life earning nothing but money.”

Charles Beard 1874 – 1948 CE
Pioneering progressive historian

Themes: Failure Money

“he has the secret of those people to whom success comes by itself... he never fears failure, he is never worried about a loss.”

Hermann Hesse 1877 – 1962 CE
from Siddhartha

Themes: Failure

“When a person no longer confuses a personal body with self and recognizes all people as members of their own body, neither failure or success can bother them and they become safe to guide and guard others.”

Witter Bynner 1881 – 1968 CE via Shan Dao
(Emanuel Morgan)

13. Honor and Disgrace

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

James Joyce 1882 – 1941 CE

Themes: Failure

“It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Franklin Roosevelt 1882 – 1945 CE
Champion and creator of a more just and equitable society

Themes: Failure Mistakes

“There is no harm in being sometimes wrong - especially if one is promptly found out.”

John Maynard Keynes 1883 – 1946 CE
Revolutionary economist credited with saving capitalism

Themes: Failure

“The essential cause of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars... it was an empty shell when Christianity arose and invasion came.”

Will (and Ariel) Durant 1885 – 1981 CE
from Caesar and Christ

Themes: Failure

“Forget mistakes. Forget failure. Forget everything except what you're going to do now and do it.”

Will (and Ariel) Durant 1885 – 1981 CE

13. Honor and Disgrace

“There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.”

Eric Fromm 1900 – 1980 CE

Themes: Failure

“Globalization inevitably implies more standardization and therefore a decrease in diversity, which in turn would slow down the rate of social innovations. Another danger of globalization is that excessive interdependence of systems increases the likelihood of collective disasters if one of the subsystems fails”

René Dubos 1901 – 1982 CE via Think Globally, But Act Locally
Influential scientific environmentalist

from Celebrations of life (1981)

  • It is wrong to think that belief in freedom always leads to victory; we must always be prepared for it to lead to defeat. If we choose freedom, then we must be prepared to perish along with it.

Karl Popper 1902 – 1994 CE via Patrick Camiller
Major Philosopher of Science
from On Freedom (1958)

Themes: Victory Failure

“Only because I prefer a positive to a negative. In this game that we're playing, we can't win. Some kinds of failure are better than other kinds, that's all.”

George Orwell 1903 – 1950 CE
English, poet, humanist, apostle of doubt, and powerful political influence
from 1984

Themes: Failure

“Lifelong dissent has more than acclimated me cheerfully to defeat. It has made me suspicious of victory. I feel uneasy at the very idea of a Movement. I see every insight degenerating into a dogma, and fresh thoughts freezing into lifeless party line. (1969)”

I. F. Stone 1907 – 1989 CE
One of the greatest 20th century reporters
from I.F. Stone's Weekly

“There’s something you should know about failure, Tintin… you can never let it defeat you.”

Hergé 1907 – 1983 CE via Captain Haddock​
(Georges Prosper Remi )
Intrepid reporter of world culture

Themes: Failure

“No man leaves where he is and seeks a distant place unless he is in some respect a failure.”

James Michener 1907 – 1997 CE
Historical and Generational Saga Master

from Hawaii (1959)​

Themes: Travel Failure

“They give up the dream of what may lie ahead on the heights of tomorrow for a perpetual nightmare - an endless succession of days fearing the loss of a tenuous security.”

Saul Alinsky 1909 – 1972 CE

Themes: Dream Failure

“We are living in a world of mass media which daily exposes society’s innate hypocrisy, its contradictions and the apparent failure of almost every facet of our social and political life.”

Saul Alinsky 1909 – 1972 CE

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

John Kennedy 1917 – 1963 CE
Modern America's most popular president

Themes: Victory Failure

“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”

Jack Kerouac 1922 – 1969 CE

Themes: Failure Control

“Success and failure are both humiliating.”

Jack Kerouac 1922 – 1969 CE
from Some of the Dharma

Themes: Success Failure

“Success and failure are greatly overrated. But failure gives you a whole lot more to talk about.

Hildegard Knef 1925 – 2002 CE

Themes: Failure Success

2. The Wordless Teachings

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so 'safe,' and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

Malcolm X الحاجّ مالك الشباز‎‎ 1925 – 1965 CE

Themes: Failure

“You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through. If you accept failure as a possibility, you don't set high goals, you don't branch out, you don't try - you don't take the risk.”

Rosalynn Carter 1927 – 1923 CE
Insightful and compassionate politician

“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”

Maya Angelou 1928 – 2014 CE

Themes: Failure

“Our defects are so tenuous, so delicate, that we’re hardly able to perceive them. In fact, we have to rise a notch in our evolution to know”

Philip K. Dick 1928 – 1982 CE
Legendary consciousness provocateur
from Man in the High Castle,

Themes: Failure

“Identify yourself with loss, failure, the obscure, the unpossessible, and you’ll be at home even there.”

Ursula Le Guin 1929 – 2018 CE

Themes: Failure

23. Nothing and Not

“F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 fearing that he was a failure, forgotten. The Great Gatsby led the Fitzgerald rediscovery and restoration because it is a miracle—though not his only miracle. Literary miracles are the work of writers who come closer than other writers to expressing what is in their minds through innate genius augmented by control, technique, craft.”

Matthew J. Bruccoli 1931 – 2008 CE

Themes: Failure

“unless we believe we actually are the losers the audience sees us to be, we will not have the necessary desire to win.”

James P. Carse 1932 – 2020 CE
Thought-proving, influential, deep thinker
from Finite and Infinite Games

Themes: Failure

“He feels the joy and sorrow of love in everything he does. He feels hot and cold, sweet and sour, simultaneously. Whether things go well or things go badly, whether there is success or failure, he feels sad and delighted at once.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE
from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

24. Unnecessary Baggage

“The search for an external protector has met with no success.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE via Nalanda Translation Committee
from Sadhana of Mahamudra

Themes: Teachers Failure

38. Fruit Over Flowers

“There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”

Bob Dylan 1941 CE – via Love Minus Zero
from Bringing it all Back Home

Themes: Success Failure

2. The Wordless Teachings

“There is no such thing as failure here.”

Paulo Lugari 1944 CE – via Alan Weisman

Themes: Failure

“Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.”

Neal Stephenson 1959 CE –
(Stephen Bury)
Speculative futurist and cultural social commentator

from Diamond Age

Themes: Strategy Failure

“If there was a single thread running through the life of Angelou it was her carpe diem approach to living... She was an 'experimentalist', someone who viewed life as a smorgasbord of possibilities and experiences there for the tasting even when it involved risk and the prospect of failure.”

Roman Krznaric 1
Practical, popular, modern philosopher

from Carpe Diem Regained (2017)

“failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me... Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”

J.K. Rowling 1965 CE –
from Harvard Commencement address, 2008

Themes: Failure

“We don't really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.”

Alain de Botton 1969 CE –
Philosophic link between ancient wisdom and modern challenge
from How Proust Can Change Your Life

Themes: Education Failure

“It is not technology that explains failure; it is less about technology, per se, and more about the leaders' failure to envision the future of their business as the world changes around them.”

Simon Sinek 1973 CE –
from Infinite Game

“Creativity means staying open to change, and risking failure... We are always taking a chance, precisely because there is no certainty.”

Mingyur Rinpoche 1975 CE –
Modern-day Mahasiddha

from In Love With the World

Themes: Failure

“the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different tack. That's why scientists learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses... why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilization.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Themes: Science Failure

“the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Themes: Failure

“You can't solve mysteries through guesswork. You start with what you know, and continue adding in more of what you know, until there is nothing left of what you know. Only then do yo even begin to add logic, reason, and speculation. Guessing is truly a last resort... an admission of failure.”

Deepak Malhotra 1
"Professor of the Year"

from Peacemaker's Code

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