What does it mean to truly fail at life? I only ask because I suspect I have. It is not that I am immoral or even inauthentic, but it seems that all I can do is encourage attitudes and behaviours, in others, that is anathema to what I believe in. Why?

Someone asked me to say what I believe in. I believe that friends at worse tolerate one another and that all people have the potential to act as if friends. I believe that everyone can be moral and authentic, but only some of us are capable of life (yours, my own) and changing intelligence, but that it's worse to squander or just give the impression of that than it is to simply lack it. I believe that the finest feeling is not joy but catharsis, followed by repose. I think 'liberty' may be better thought of as something else (i.e. that trying to be free above all else is just wasted energy), though I don't know what, and it seems many people are willing to die - and kill - for it.

Or maybe I do not.

What society do you serve the building of?

I don't see what good it would do to name a cardinal virtue for my imaginary people. I'd prefer not to artificially limit differences (so my friend is not me and I am not a genius, not all pleasure is even effectively the same, etc.), but still have justice exist for everyone. The problem is that all I seem to engender is a headlong and deliberate rush to covert and inauthentic "rule-breaking" disguised as self-ownership and sovereignty. Why?

  • More details? What are you doing, and why?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 19:09
  • failing @ScottRowe ? In what sphere of life could the above not matter?
    – user65758
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 19:18
  • 4
    "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." - "Well, don't do that!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 22:25
  • 1
    Is this really a philosphy question, and not more appropriate for Interpersonal Skills?
    – Barmar
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 14:28
  • 1
    I'm talking about "all I can do is encourage attitudes and behaviours, in others". How you interact with other people is an interpersonal skill.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 16:02

7 Answers 7


I take you to really mean, you have not succeeded, by terms which you have apparently not critically examined. You seemed to have dismissed immorality, or inauthenticity, in your own case while admitting them as possible measures of failure. You say

it seems that all I can do is encourage attitudes and behaviours, in others, that are anathema to what I believe in

So this seems to imply you consider success to be about influencing other people, to share your attitudes and behaviours. Why?

Stoics, whether slaves or Emperors, sought to focus energy and attention on what they can influence, unconcerned by the actual consequences, which at least to some degree are always beyond our power to determine completely. So you could follow that path.

"The unexamined life is not worth living" -Socrates

Without a process of examining, a person hasn't established their own values, so has no basis to decide what is worthy or worthless. Similarly, defining success. With someone else's definition, you are a robot programmed by that, and achieving it will likely be hollow at best.

You must decide yourself, for your self, by examining your life, to find an answer that compels you - no other can.

This answer points towards how to frame such a process: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

  • I certainly agree with Stoicism in general. But perhaps one of the OP's values is to have a positive influence on others? It is for me, but after moving, I have been unable to start another successful discussion group like my previous one. Influencing for good is more of a Mahayana value.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 22:32
  • why do you think I have not thought critically about what authenticity and morality mean? I'm pretty sure that's a good example of what I mean. I seem to engender a lack of seriousness and respect in others
    – user65758
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 23:07
  • @trivia: Because, your post states you don't know what a successful life is, for you. It's down to you decide. If you decide you are a failure, in your own eyes, that is your choice. I don't understand how that isn't obvious to you. I'd go further, deciding you are a failure, sounds like an excuse to not try any more. A good & healthy aspiration for how to be should motivate you from where you are now, to be better. We dress it up in various cosmic schemas, but in the end it's just that. Of course Zen aims to reconcile with yourself without clinging to outcomes. It's a philosophy smorgasbord
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 23:21
  • 1
    @trivia: What do you believe in?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 23:26
  • 1
    it's weird how life sometimes feels overly long but soon we'll be dead @ScottRowe thanks
    – user65758
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 1:20

You are assuming that life is a matter of success or failure, when there is no logical basis for such an assumption. You are on the Earth as a matter of blind chance. How you spend your precious time here is up to you to a large extent, although your 'life chances', to use a cliché, will be constrained by your circumstances, genes, upbringing and luck. I am in my sixties, so I know that my opportunity to achieve notable success in a conventional sense- to be another Einstein, or Bill Gates, or Mother Theresa- is long gone. I know I will die as just another of billions of unsung humans who have died before me or will die after me. Thankfully I am reasonable rational and fatalistic, so I accept that in that other cliché- the grand scheme of things- how and when I die, and what I do in my remaining days, does not matter. What counts to me now is sharing my thoughts, while I still have any to share, and being nice to people (except on PSE, where I am unbearably waspish).

So there is no universal truth about failing in life. If you are a fatalist, you might consider that your life is largely determined for you. If you believe in free will, then you can set goals for yourself and try to achieve them.

  • "I am in my sixties, so I know that my opportunity to achieve notable success in a conventional sense- to be another Einstein, or Bill Gates, or Mother Theresa- is long gone." Firstly, that is an assumption. Secondly, you are not "just another of billions of unsung humans who have died". Far from it :)
    – user62907
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 8:59
  • 2
    @thinkingman you are far too kind. In your honour I really ought to pose a probability-related question about my chances of becoming another Einstein, Bill Gates or Mother Theresa, or possibly all three! Commented May 4, 2023 at 11:13

There are probably as many ways to 'fail at life' as there are opinions on the matter, including yours.

Many of these opinions will contradict. Some will be informed, articulate, insightful; others trite, naive, crude.

Where does this leave you? To say that yours is the only metric which matters is tempting, but this might not actually be the case, as our lives are typically impacted by others, including by others who hold values in opposition to our own; it is normal for us - as a species who relies on cooperation - to deem the opinions and responses of others as crucial.

Maybe you're not governed by your own ideals. Maybe you seek to satisfy others more than yourself. What does this mean? Well... perhaps the first step is to identify what success and failure mean to you, and why. Then - if you are able to figure that out - you might have an answer to your question.

Once thing seems clear:

Given you have asked this question, and providing it is a sincere question, you can identify the fact that the notion of failure is important to you. You say you suspect you have failed at life. What does that failure look like? Why do you suspect it constitutes failure? Is that failure surmountable? Could it even have been avoided? What control have you had/might you have over it? Can your failures go on to inform successes, given how intimate you have become with the lack of success? In other words, can you identify something you might change?

You have identified the 'finest feeling' as catharsis:

"the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions".

It might be worth asking yourself why you felt mentioning this was relevant. It suggests you - at least sometimes - experience strong or repressed emotions that you need relief from. Can you identify any of these emotions? Is there anything linking them? Do they have common source(s)? Are they emotions you would deem healthy or pathological in others? Are they impacting your life in negative ways? Might you benefit from experienced, professional help?

"The problem is that all I seem to engender is a headlong and deliberate rush to covert and inauthentic "rule-breaking" disguised as self-ownership and sovereignty".

There is a great risk here of misinterpreting your comments, so please read this with great skepticism, but it seems you have achieved a significant insight here; that you see you are acting in ways which conflict with your ideals; a position many of find ourselves in at times and which brings many of us a great deal of heartache. This is to some a key realisation; for it empowers us with a direction for change, ie. to find a way of living more aligned with the way we truly like to be.

A word of warning: if your values are sociopathic or dangerous in some ways, you must proceed carefully, for reckless abandon - if that is perhaps your true urge - is likely not in your or anyone's best interests.

I'll stop now, because this is transgressing into a realm better suited to a professional, more immediately interactive context. I don't mean to sound condescending here at all - I suspect you are far more intelligent than I am, and you are clearly possessed of valuable self-insight - but to employ a cliche, you have in clearly identifying "the problem" taken the most important step to solving it, whether or not that solution requires outside assistance or not. If you have not done so already, you might take a look at Socratic Questioning, which is a way of using your own intellect and insight to find solutions to your problems, in concert with/in lieu of external help.

  • Someone brought up integrity the other day. Is it even possible to fail at life if we maintain it?
    – user65994
    Commented May 15, 2023 at 21:50
  • anyway, thanks for the kindness
    – user65994
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 0:41

To truly fail at life (as a human being) you must live long enough to become a sapient human being, but die shortly afterwards. Thus you have failed at having a life.

Exactly when a human becomes sapient is a matter for debate. Some people claim immediately after birth, others claim it takes longer than that.

  • Having a short life does not equate necessarily to having failed at life, does it? Life can end 'prematurely' for any number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with failure in the sense of a failure of agency, at least. Maybe you mean failure more in the sense of a tyre failing; some failure of expectation of longevity. Commented May 4, 2023 at 15:04
  • @Futilitarian I didn't mention failure of agency. A tire that doesn't work as a tire has failed. A life that has not been a full life has failed.
    – Daron
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 17:01

What does it mean to truly fail at life? I only ask because I suspect I have.

I fully admit that I do not understand most of what you wrote after these initial sentences, so I'll try to give you some mindset which more or less cancels out the conundrum I assume you're in.

To fail at something there must be some goal or target you wanted to reach, which you did not. Hence you failed to reach it.

Your question implies that you think that life should be associated with some form of goal, target, sense or meaning.

So to "truly fail at life" simply means that you somehow managed to bring yourself into a situation which makes it impossible for you to reach what you assume to be the goal or meaning of life.

As always, there are now three possibilities:

  1. You truly failed. There is some goal of life, and you brought yourself into a situation where you irrevocably are unable to reach this goal. For example: you could assume (and this is purely an example, I do not pose that this is or is not a valid statement) that the goal of life is to reproduce; and you could somehow, accidentally or deliberately, remove your reproductive organ from your body. Then, unless medicine figures out a way to undo this, you are done for - you will never ever reproduce.
  2. You failed so far, but there are ways to become better. For example, you could assume (with the same caveat as before) that the goal of life is to increase net happiness in the universe. You could so far have had a net negative effect (i.e. by your actions and demeanour you objectively brought everyone around you down in happiness, so far). But since we are in case 2, you can, through diligent work on yourself, change and become a person which increases happiness in the beings around you, and if you have enough time left, even get to a net positive outcome by the end.
  3. You can, instead, tackle the "goal" aspect. Not everybody believes that there is a fundamental, objective goal, target or meaning to life on a personal level. You could convince yourself that this is indeed the case. This would make it impossible to "fail" in any sense, since if there is no metric to fail by, failure is impossible.

Maybe this helps.

Note that depression and similar states of mind are real, bodily illnesses. It may seem to you that there is no salvation, but there is always a way out - therapists often can help even if you yourself feel like there is no solution under the sun that could ever apply to you. If worse comes to worst, be sure to reach out to some professional.


You can't fail at it. You're still living it. After reading, I feel you do know what you want (you know what catharsis feels like) but you don't want to or can't do it. Others have already broken down these equations above. Also, you encourage others while you yourself can't do it. I only see lack of will here. I think we all are adding to the world's shape so whatever you do and are doing is contributing to the products of now and future. I would suggest you to dive deeper in whatever you like. If you like to push people and think that you would like to add to the world through that, improve it and repeat it. I'm sure you'll take on those risks yourself soon after that.


Maybe what's missing is integrity, which I would probably naively - I should read a primer - gloss as a form of deception about meaning in life (an inauthentic life rather than individual human being or Dasein).

A musical work might be said to have integrity when its musical structure has a certain completeness that is not intruded upon by uncoordinated, unrelated musical ideas; that is, when it possesses a kind of musical wholeness, intactness and purity... integrity is primarily a formal relation one has to oneself, or between parts or aspects of one’s self; and second, that integrity is connected in an important way to acting morally... To live with integrity is not merely to have a coherent life-plan and the courage to realise it, it is to act in a way that is rationally endorsed both by oneself as one acts and one’s future self.

So integrity may mean something like a meaningfully coherent life, just one that is less contingent on others than meaning as we usually think of it, even as it can be nourished or threatened by society.

As self constitution

must formulate his plan in the light of such a principle and trust his future self to endorse the plan in the light of the same principle. It is a risk, of course. But integrity is born of this risk. And if Korsgaard is right, it is not just integrity that is constituted in this way, but our becoming a distinctive self is constituted in this way too.

And as virtue

Central to the idea of integrity as the virtue of taking one’s life seriously would be the idea that a pursuit of integrity involves somehow taking account of one’s changing values, convictions, commitments, desires, knowledge, beliefs and so on over time

It may be tricky to see how these two don't conflict, how we can make ourselves virtuous, but I think both would agree that is hinges more on ourselves than, in most ways of thinking, happiness.

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    Commented May 16, 2023 at 18:36
  • you mean like quotes @Community ?
    – user65994
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 18:36

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