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The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide (Ataraxia Book 6)

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We spend most of our time and energy chasing 'success', such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling, being and relating. As a result, we fail in the deepest possible way. We fail as human beings. The Art of Failure explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved. Dr Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher who li We spend most of our time and energy chasing 'success', such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling, being and relating. As a result, we fail in the deepest possible way. We fail as human beings. The Art of Failure explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved. Dr Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. His other books include The Meaning of Madness and Plato’s Shadow, both also with Acheron Press.


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We spend most of our time and energy chasing 'success', such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling, being and relating. As a result, we fail in the deepest possible way. We fail as human beings. The Art of Failure explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved. Dr Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher who li We spend most of our time and energy chasing 'success', such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling, being and relating. As a result, we fail in the deepest possible way. We fail as human beings. The Art of Failure explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved. Dr Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. His other books include The Meaning of Madness and Plato’s Shadow, both also with Acheron Press.

30 review for The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide (Ataraxia Book 6)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    Although the title seems promising and the subtitle even more, I am afraid that the book is disappointing. Although the author is still young (31 years, he is a practicing psychiatrist, graduate neurologist and "philosopher". This book touches on a lot of subjects of philosophy, psychology and psychiatry, it does not do anymore than touch upon these subjects. Burton quotes a whole range of sources from Socrates to Wittgenstein, but after finishing this book, you remain unsatisfied. The book and i Although the title seems promising and the subtitle even more, I am afraid that the book is disappointing. Although the author is still young (31 years, he is a practicing psychiatrist, graduate neurologist and "philosopher". This book touches on a lot of subjects of philosophy, psychology and psychiatry, it does not do anymore than touch upon these subjects. Burton quotes a whole range of sources from Socrates to Wittgenstein, but after finishing this book, you remain unsatisfied. The book and it's chapters are too short to get a grasp of the complexity of the issues raised (determinism, free will, madness, death, ...). Fortunutaly Burton refers to several classic works (Thomas Nagel, Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, ...) that are much more thorough in discussing these subjects.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Gareth

    The self-help book has acquired a bad press of late, earning a reputation for dealing in platitudes, patronising, and generally failing to engage the more sophisticated and demanding reader. In styling itself as an 'anti self-help guide', Neel Burton's 'The Art of Failure' therefore sets out to prove that self-help literature need not succumb to lowest-common-denominator triteness and tedious mantras of self-motivation. The book's basic premise is that the modern Western definition of success is The self-help book has acquired a bad press of late, earning a reputation for dealing in platitudes, patronising, and generally failing to engage the more sophisticated and demanding reader. In styling itself as an 'anti self-help guide', Neel Burton's 'The Art of Failure' therefore sets out to prove that self-help literature need not succumb to lowest-common-denominator triteness and tedious mantras of self-motivation. The book's basic premise is that the modern Western definition of success is deeply flawed, presenting us with the false goals of material comfort, fame, power and hedonism. In contrast, Burton argues, Western philosophical and spiritual traditions have largely been in agreement that true happiness lies in accepting 'failure'; that we are limited and mortal beings, subject to frequent and unforeseen setbacks, in the face of which we do better to develop virtues of honesty, friendship, patience, and moderation. To be fair, this is not perhaps a lesson that the much maligned self-help guides have ignored, but the virtue of Burton's book is that he is not afraid to enter into these topics in more appropriate depth and detail. Throughout, his points are illustrated by recourse to theories, ideas and anecdotes cherry-picked from the lives and writings of the great philosophers - Plato and Aristotle (who feature heavily throughout), Epicurus and Heraclitus, but also representatives of the existentialist tradition, such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre. Burton also draws on his background in psychology in ranging through contemporary issues in psychiatry as well as the continued relevance of the classic approaches of Freud and Jung. Such discussion is augmented throughout with references to literature, art, religion and history, with the result that Burton's material is always engaging and interesting, presented in an accessible and clear manner. However, these many merits aside, this breadth of topic and material also at times serves to detract from the book's overall purpose. Given the detail in which certain subjects are presented, the central theme - exploration of the 'art of failure' - can sometimes get lost in more or less technical expositions of theories and accounts. For instance, the chapter on free will, whilst providing an admirably concise overview of the main philosophical controversies, arguably strays too far from the main narrative path and fails to maintain a clear sense of the context and purpose of the discussion. I had a similar feeling at other points in the book, and, while Burton makes frequent attempts to signpost the reader as to how the material under discussion relates to the main topic, he struggles to do this consistently and seamlessly. As a result, the book sometimes feels more like a collection of well-written and interesting essays than a unified treatment of a central theme. This said, the book is well worth reading. Burton's attitude to his material is always thoughtful, never content merely to outline this or that idea, but always seeking to draw lessons and insights. There is much, then, that average readers will benefit from - that will 'help' them! - and there are numerous points at which I found myself absorbed, nodding in agreement, or making mental notes to find out more about this or that. Burton's scholarship is excellent, his tone always intelligent but clear - a rare combination of skills - so whilst certain aspects of the book might be improved upon, it is far from being a failure. Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Littrell

    Real success This book is a precursor of sorts to Dr. Burton’s recently published “Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.” In both books much of the same ground is covered, and indeed there is some repetition; however “The Art of Failure” is more clearly about what to do about the human predicament while “Hide and Seek” is more about laying out what the problem is. And what is the problem? The problem, as the Buddha expressed it some twenty-five hundred years ago, is that life as it is u Real success This book is a precursor of sorts to Dr. Burton’s recently published “Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.” In both books much of the same ground is covered, and indeed there is some repetition; however “The Art of Failure” is more clearly about what to do about the human predicament while “Hide and Seek” is more about laying out what the problem is. And what is the problem? The problem, as the Buddha expressed it some twenty-five hundred years ago, is that life as it is usually lived is unsatisfactory. Consequently Burton’s title is doubly ironic. First, what is called failure is in fact success, and what is “anti self-help” really is self-help. What I especially like about the way Burton writes is his ability to make his case using evidence and rationale from academic or clinical psychology and from philosophic and religious traditions. Let’s begin with one of the most important ideas in the book: “As human beings we have a tendency to think of our personhood as something concrete and tangible, something that exists in the ‘real world’ and that extends through time. However, it is possible that our personhood is in fact nothing more than a product of our minds, merely a convenient concept of schema that enables us to relate our present self with our past, future, and conditionals selves, and so to lend to our life a sense of coherence and meaning. This concept or schema amounts to our sense of self, which is the very basis of our ego, and which is, therefore, tantamount to one gigantic ego defence, or the sum total of all our ego defences.” (pp. 92-93) Similarly from a Buddhist perspective, Burton writes: “An analogy that is often used to describe this process of rebirth or samsara is that of a flame passing from one candle to the next. This cycle of rebirth can only be broken if the empirical, changing self is able to transcend its subjective and distorted image of the world, which is both conscious and unconscious, and which has the ‘I am’ conceit as a crucial reference point. This, then, is heaven or nibbana. Nibbana, as I see it, rests on the understanding that consciousness is a sequence of conscious moments rather than the continuous consciousness of the ‘I am’ conceit. Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state such as a perception, feeling, or thought; the consciousness of an empirical self is made up of the birth and death of these individual mind-states, and ‘rebirth’ is nothing more than the persistence of this process.” (p. 100) Interesting is how Burton develops his argument using stories about famous Greek philosophers and some famous psychiatrists from the psychoanalytical school. Burton is well read in these areas and enjoys recalling bits of their lives. I especially enjoyed what he wrote about Diogenes the Cynic. “Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” “In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon) but cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave.’” (p. 107) Following this we get Burton’s thesis (more or less) and the rationale for his ironic title: “Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure.” (p. 108) “Other shining examples of the art of failure among the philosophers includes Pythagoras and Heraclitus.” (p. 145) It’s apparent that what Burton means as the art of failure is the preference for successes other than those usually valued such as fame, wealth and power. We can see this as Burton recalls the famous story of Miletus who was able to predict a bumper olive crop one year inspiring him to take out a lease on all the olive presses in Miletus. He made a fortune, “simply to prove to the Milesians that a thinker could easily be rich, if only he did not have better things to do with his time.” (p. 145) In Chapter 8 entitled “Madness” Burton turns his attention to some of the greats in psychoanalytical theory. His recall of the life of Carl Jung is particularly interesting. Burton notes that Jung at one point went through a “highly creative state of mind that verged on psychosis…” while being married to “Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of a rich industrialist.” Burton then coyly writes, “Despite being happily married, he felt that he needed a muse as well as a home-maker, observing that ‘the pre-requisite of a good marriage…is the license to be unfaithful’. The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, and particularly from his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind…” (p. 123) Part of what this book is about and what it celebrates is courage. Hemingway famously said that courage is grace under pressure. I like that definition. I also like Burton’s take, which is revealed throughout the book, but can be thought of as a kind of wisdom. He writes, “…[I]f a person is to become fully conscious of his individuality, he needs to come to terms with the basis of fear and anxiety, which is death, and then to renounce his acquired sense of self, which amounts to metaphorical suicide.” (p. 109) (Although I think for some people the basis of fear and anxiety is pain itself not death.) What we fear varies from person to person but as Burton points out generally our phobias are of natural dangers our ancestors faced while what is really dangerous today are manmade hazards like motor vehicles and electric cables. (p. 52) Two thoughts jump to mind: (1) I find it easier to think about suicide from a gunshot to the head than about jumping from a high place. (2) I twice watched a coyote look both ways before crossing a street. There was a part of the book that I found a bit unclear and another part a bit overdrawn. The overdrawn was his search mainly among the ancient Greeks for an understanding of friendship. However I did like this observation: “...the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous)…” (For more see page 157.) And I was a bit mystified by Burton’s brain transfer thought experiment in the chapter he entitles “Ghosts.” He has created a person dubbed Brownson who exists because the brains of two men were switched during a botched operation. Burton writes: “Let us imagine that Brownson’s brain is now divided into two equal halves or hemispheres and that each hemisphere is transplanted into a brainless body. After the operation, two people awake who are psychologically continuous with Brownson…are they then both Brownson?” Obviously, I would say, half a brain does not make a whole person (or keep one alive for very long). If the thought experiment were changed a bit so as to absolutely duplicate the Brownson brain and put one into one body and the other into another body, then Burton’s question would make sense. His conclusion that “Most people would argue…they are not in fact the same person…” seems reasonable since they have differ bodies and indeed we are not merely our brains. Even more reasonable is the conclusion that “in time [they] will develop into two very different people.” Interested readers might compare Burton’s “Brownson” thought experiment to the “swampman” thought experiment by philosopher Donald Davidson (in which I think he comes to a mistaken conclusion) and the “self-identity” thought experiment in my book “The World Is Not as We Think It Is” in which I think I come to the right conclusion. Let me close this rather long review of an excellent, very readable and challenging book with a quote from neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl that Burton presents on page 101: “Only to the extent that someone is living out this self transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self's actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward." --Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Wallace

    Too many topics covered in light touches. A self help book that is anti self help. Failure is a part of life and can be a real learning experience , if you allow it to be.. Western success is based on money and power and not necessarily being a successful human being. Personally I think if the author had covered fewer topics and focused on these in greater depth the book would have been better. 3 Stars ⭐️ Thanks to Netgalley for allowing me to read this book in return for a fair review.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Angie

    As someone who has read a lot of self-help books in the past, but is aware of their flaws, I wanted to like this book so much. However, I found it tried to cover to much, and only skimmed the surface in many ways, which is a shame. It could have been so much better, even if the author had given links to external websites and blog posts to illustrate deeper what he was trying to get across.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Carl Norman

    This book does not live up to the promise of its title. Had I had the opportunity to examine it in a bookstore, I would not have purchased it. There is no unifying theme. There are only general discussions related to the chapter titles such as mania, fear, courage, ghosts, madness, and meaning. If I could get a refund on this, I would.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dane

  8. 4 out of 5

    Luke Bands

  9. 4 out of 5

    Anurag

  10. 4 out of 5

    M

  11. 5 out of 5

    Charity Bartley Howard

  12. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Newland

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rosemary

  14. 4 out of 5

    James Mitchener

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mitt Soyce

  16. 5 out of 5

    Arthur David

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paytn

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shonagh Lindsay

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jacinta Read

  21. 5 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ifor

  23. 4 out of 5

    Fatts

  24. 4 out of 5

    Cosmin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Barry Singleton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Catalin

  27. 5 out of 5

    Brad Harten

  28. 5 out of 5

    John

  29. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn Francis

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vegetarian

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