The Failure of Success: Redefining what matters

John Hunt Publishing (O Books) December 2012

How real is success?  Does dependence on material success condemn most of us to failure?

From a wide range of answers and her own experience, Jennifer Kavanagh explores some of the stereotypes on which these concepts are based, and reveals what people feel really matters in their lives. There is a growing acceptance that failure can not only lead to success but can open us to profound change. If we let go of the quest for individual perfection, and accept what is, our lives and relationships will be enriched. If we let go of our judgemental behaviour, we will no longer view life in terms of success or failure. If we let go of our attachment to outcomes, we will be content with where and who we are.

“Putting one foot in front of the other, neither afraid of failure nor triumphant with success. Living, in other words.”

This is a slim, wise, thoughtful book.  It should be read by anyone who thinks they are a success or a failure!  Clare Short

It seems that the Western World is obsessed by success and celebrity and so lives in fear of failure. This is the premise on which Kavanagh challenges the traditional definitions of success. She offers a balanced and accessible exploration into what really matters in our lives. Jennifer Kavanagh writes with great wisdom and insight using her own experience and that of others to look at failure in both its negative and surprisingly positive aspects. The book challenges us to let go of our preconceived ideas and allow life to flow from the truth of what matters. As the author says, “in letting go, allowing life to evolve, listening to our inner self and acting in truthful response, all that is needful will be shown.”

This potentially life-changing book questioned my own definitions of success in this over-materialistic world. It was a book I couldn’t put down and will read again. (Magnet magazine)
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 respectively 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
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 it 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
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 on “winner
take all” mentality, this little book provides some much
needed perspective.
(Western Friend magazine)


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