Thursday, June 5, 2008

Miracle of Melancholia And Failure - It Can Lead To Optimism

The miracle of melancholia by Eric G. Wilson, in the LA Times, has been sitting in my Blogger drafts since February 17 2008.

We're a nation obsessed with being happy, but sometimes feeling bad can do you some good.
In April of 1819, right around the time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis -- the disease that had already killed his mother and his beloved brother, Tom -- the poet John Keats sat down and wrote, in a letter to his brother, George, the following question: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?"

Another somewhat similarly minded perspective was found in The Value of Failure

Bounce by Barry Moltz, about startups and failurewhich was recommended by Small Business Trends small business expert Scott Shane back on February 4, 2008.

I don’t usually recommend business books to people because I am not a big fan of most of them. But I need to make an exception here. I want to urge people to read Bounce by Barry Moltz.
As someone who studies entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship for a living, I know that there is a big problem getting good information about the topic. Most start-ups fail, but people don’t like to talk about failure. So we have many more stories about start-up success than start-up failure, even though it should be the other way around.

Keats shows us that this struggle with melancholia is nothing new. Eric G. Wilson shows us that what is new is its social stigma.

Implied in this inquiry is an idea that is not very popular these days -- at least not in the United States, which is characterized by an almost collective yearning for complete happiness. That idea is this: A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow. This notion would seem quite strange, possibly even deranged, in a country in which almost 85% of the population claims, according to the Pew Research Center, to be "very happy" or at least "happy."

He goes on to say:

Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities. We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life.

I don't believe that Professor Wilson's words should be denied, but they are not in themselves complete enough. The reason that I so often use business links,such as Small Business Trends, is that they are a laboratory in reality, rather than in the academic or virtual world. What the business person experiments with has to work or he or she doesn't survive. Barry Moltz's Bounce is "stories" of facing and overcoming failure, of starting again. Melancholia has its lessons and its value but that should not keep us from engaging optimism.

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