This post contains *MAJOR spoilers* for season 6 of Game of Thrones. Proceed at your own risk.
What can you learn about failure from a show with zombies, dragons, ice monsters, prophecies, and lots of bloodshed?
I’ve heard a lot of good ideas about relating to failure. But my (current) favorite comes from Game of Thrones.
I love this show for bringing serious philosophical themes into the entertainment mainstream (I co-hosted a podcast about the philosophy of season 7), and the show’s heroes’ arcs bring a lot of opportunities to explore virtues like courage and honesty.
Namely, these heroes fail a LOT, and they have to start over again pretty often. This usually happens after a member of their family dies brutally in front of them.
In the case of season 6, we actually meet a hero who literally dies and comes back to life.
Talk about recovering from a failure. Can you imagine what it feels like to be resurrected after being murdered by your closest friends and allies? And what’s more, murdered for saving the lives of a bunch of people?
That’s how Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch Jon Snow feels. And even though he’s seen things few mortal men has seen – and even though he knows the army of the dead is bearing down on Westeros – he’s feeling like getting back into the fight is pretty useless.
Fortunately, he has old and crusty but lovable sailor guy Davos Seaworth to give him advice. Davos is no stranger to failure himself. Recently, his son died a horrific death by medieval napalm, and his king + his army just got massacred by a crazy bastard (literally) named Ramsey Bolton.
Davos has reasons to give up, but he won’t let Jon feel sorry for himself for a second. Jon Snow has a job to do.
WARNING: There’s a “fooking” dropped in this video, so better have your headphones in if your boss can translate Scottish profanity.
Davos Seaworth: You go on. You fight for as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can.
Jon Snow: I don’t know how to do that. I thought I did, but… I failed.
Davos Seaworth: Good. Now go fail again.
Davos is saying something very important to Jon here: you don’t have to let your attempt to make the world better contingent on immediate (or even ultimate) success.
You don’t get to give up when you fail the first time. Or the second, or the third. Instead “you clean up as much of the shit as you can.” You really stop stressing quite as much when you do that. The first hurdle becomes trying, not succeeding.
This echoes something I’ve been reading recently in an interesting little book called F*** Feelings, which takes a very Davos-ian approach to self improvement:
Failure in this context is no reason to stop trying. It’s actually a part of the job description, it’s nothing to fear, and putting up with it is its own success. “Good. Now go fail again.” You only fail if you fail to fail. Make sense?
There’s a quote from Howard Thurman which I really like as a guide for life choices:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
If Davos was delivering that line, he might say the following:
“Don’t worry about fixing the world. You may or may not be the one to do it. But give a damn and try. Because what the world needs is people who give a damn and try.”
It seems like Davos holds himself by that. Maybe that’s why he’s one of the few through and through good characters in Game of Thrones. It certainly makes for excellent advice for Jon Snow, who gets back into the fight.
We may not have crazy bastard tyrants or evil ice king monsters to face down. But we’ve got plenty of shit to clean up. And we’ve got plenty of failures ahead of us.
Let’s find happiness and meaning in the struggle to clean up as much of the shit as we can. And if we fail, let’s go fail again.