(By Oliver Burkeman)
Be positive, look on the bright side, stay focused on success: so goes our modern mantra. But perhaps the true path to contentment is to learn to be a loser. In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a touching memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams. It doesn’t look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside — what members of the public rarely do — it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you’re seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won’t find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products. By far the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that it should exist as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. Most surprising of all is that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum have come there to examine - or been surprised to discover - products that their own companies had created, then abandoned. They were apparently so averse to dwelling on the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.
Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.
Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.
Another problem with our reluctance is that it leads to an utterly distorted picture of the causes of success.
Fortunately, developing a healthier approach to failure may be easier than you’d think. The work of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that our experiences of failure are influenced by the beliefs we hold about the nature of talent and ability - and that we can encourage ourselves towards a better outlook. Perfectionism is one of those traits that many people seem secretly, or not-so-secretly, proud to possess, since it hardly seems like a character flaw. Yet, at bottom, it is a fear-driven striving to avoid the experience of failure at all costs. At the extremes, it is an exhausting and permanently stressful way to live. To fully embrace the experience of failure, not merely to tolerate it as a stepping stone to glory, is to abandon this constant straining never to put a foot wrong — and to relax.
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What alternative approach does the author suggest?
- He advises to learn how to be uncertain and insecure and to take pleasure of it.
- He recommends avoiding negative emotions.
- He offers to use special technologies to forget negative emotions.
- He suggests doing psychological tests.
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