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on 23 March 2011
The Art of Failure is an uncommonly valuable book because it pinpoints the faults of contemporary definitions of failure and success, helping readers realign their values to match the things that lead to fundamental happiness. Unfortunately the book is challenging to many of the core beliefs that drive contemporary humans and its conclusions are difficult to implement in proportion to their truth. As such, it appropriately calls itself an 'anti-self help guide' and promises no easy tricks to success among one's peers.

While the author draws from (primarily though not exclusively Western) philosophy and psychology, The Art of Failure is in not merely a summary or a survey of either of these. The author ties together relevant and interesting philosophical and social theories in a tight arc that clearly leads to a realization of the fuller possibilities attendant to being human, as well as how one can achieve these personally. The examples from psychology and philosophy are not only engrossing for their own sakes but are often remarkably novel repackagings of material from the the intellectually sensitive minds of the past in different and unusual forms. I found that the results not only elucidated the ideas of those psychologists and philosophers but gave them dimensions I had not before realized. On this account alone the book would be worth reading.

By far the book's most important impact is that it speaks to that voice inside that wonders at the end of the day how it has gotten here and whether it needs to be here at all. It rang true for me on this deep level usually reserved for literature and art; if I can implement only some of the conclusions in my life, I will be better for it.
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on 21 August 2010
I've read many a self-help guide in my time, but this is one is by far the most brilliant and insightful that I've ever come across. That's probably because it's not a self-help guide but an anti self-help guide, and successfully undermines the very premises of the "get ahead" brand of self-help guides.

Although the title suggests that the book may be ironic or tongue in cheek, it's nothing of the sort. It'll grab you, shake you up, spit in your face and leave you shaking in a corner. And then it'll rebuild you bit by bit as a wiser and better person. Aside from all this violence, it can be quite intellectually challenging at times, particularly when discussing philosophical topics such as free will, knowledge, virtue, personal identity, the meaning of life, and the role of friendship and love in the good life.

As someone with a degree in psychology, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the diverse links that are formed between human thoughts and emotions and the human condition, between psychology and philosophy. But what particularly impressed me was the author's honesty and intellectual rigour, the way that he challenges ideas that no one thinks or dares to challenge, the way that his own ideas form part of a coherent worldview that becomes increasingly compelling as the pages are turned. I must say that after reading the last page I was completely stumped and had to go back to page one and start all over again!

Ultimately, The Art of Failure aims to remind us of who we are lest we have lost ourselves somewhere along the way, and to teach us how difficult and yet important it is to be true to ourselves even though this may mean `failing' in the eyes of others. It's impossible to do this book justice in a review: just read it and see what I mean.
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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."
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The quotation is by Bertrand Russell and appears in Neel Burton's book. By even considering whether to purchase this book, you are at least demonstrating that you are not `some people'.

I bought this book after having read Burton's `Hide and Seek' and was intrigued with what he had to say about false values in the modern world. Over twelve chapters he tells his story, chapters with the following titles that will give a flavour of the subject of the narrative: 1. Mania; 2. Freedom; 3. Fear; 4. Courage; 5. Death; 6. Values; 7. Ghosts; 8. Madness; 9. Happiness; 10. Meaning; 11. Friendship; and 12. Truth.

There is much here that is thought-provoking as he introduces us to the thoughts of the great philosophers, from the ancient Greeks to present-day contemporaries such as Thomas Nagel. Along the way we meet the thoughts and ideas of Nietzsche, Milton, Freud, Kierkegaard, amongst many others. Burton also introduces non-Western sources such as the `Bhagavad Gita' to show us that we in the west are not the only ones with answers. But the book ends with some heavy does of Plato.

It's a little difficult for me to know what to make of Burton's anti-self-help guide. It's not that he doesn't write clearly and intelligibly for the general reader, or that his advice is unhelpful, meaningless, or just plain wrong; rather, my problem - if problem it is - lies in the book's structure.

I think my issue with this book is that each chapter is more or less independent of the others. In other words, whilst I was seeking an overarching progression from premise to conclusion, Burton decides to adopt a piecemeal approach. Perhaps he is right; perhaps, by doing this, he demonstrates that there is no fundamentally right approach to life, thus leaving the reader to address the subject of each chapter on its own merits in the hope that links between them can be made on an unconscious level. Thus, this is not an explicit guide per se; instead it works on a deeper level. Or maybe I have missed the point and need to read the book again!

Still, if I had to choose one short quote that demonstrates the wisdom of much of what Burton has to say, then perhaps this little observation will suffice: modern man, he writes, "has neither the joy of the present moment, nor the perspective of a human lifetime, nor the immortality of the eternal." Instead he is/we are trapped inbetween the first two, namely the short-term future. We need to shift temporal paradigms out of persistent short-termism to become more enlightened, to slow down to smell the roses and to look towards our death to envisage in what the `good life' consists.

The trouble is, it is only now in late middle-age that I see the wisdom of the words. But at least it's not too late, and I can choose to think rather than to die.
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on 1 November 2010
At first, I did not like the title at all. The Art of Failure. It deeply disturbed me. Just like many other things in this books which make you think. The book is a pleasure to read and it is highly entertaining. Start reading the first page and you will not stop. Yet, if you start thinking about your art of living and consider what the book means for you, it may become impenetrable and very disturbing. It may change your life - without helping you at all.

The Art of Failure comprises several inspiring themes. Madness, the meaning of life, death, freedom, friendship, happiness and truth. Neel Burton draws on a wide range of inspiring authors - Plato, Freud, Kant, Jung, Russel, and Aristotle to name just a few. As the title suggests, the book will not offer you a way to the kind of 'happiness' you expect from a self-help guide. Rather, it introduces the type of happiness certain philosophers experienced. One of Burton's shining examples of the art of failure and perhaps an epitome of the book is Diogenes who was enjoying the morning sunlight when Alexander the Great visited him. Alexander asked whether there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes only told him to step out of the sunlight. Episodes such as these - many of which are less known than Diogenes' - make the Art of Failure my favourite, all-you-ever-need, anti self-help guide. I would be somewhere else without reading this book, so it definitively did not help. I started to like the title, especially as it epitomises what life should be. Failure in the eyes of most and an art which makes life worth living. I still do not like the cover image, but that might change.

One of my favourites in this book is the mzungu passage. In the Western world, we are usually engaged in some kind of task which keeps us busy. And we are unhappy if we don't have a set of things to do - whether we are waiting for the bus, are on holidays, or are trying to enjoy our leisure time. People in Kenya, for example, do not share the worldview that it is worthwhile to spend all of our time rushing from one task to the next. Westerners are therefore called mzungus in Swahili - which literally translates as those who go round and round in circles.

My suggestion is therefore that you pause going round in circles for a moment and buy this book. Even if you do not like the title or some of the impenetrable questions it raises. Also, it is good value for your money, as you can read it more than once.
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on 11 July 2011
As someone who studied Philosophy at uni a few years ago, I hoped this book would rekindle my passion for the subject. However I found this book to be poorly structured and very fragmented in its delivery. A few chapters in I passed it on to a friend who also dabbled in Philosophy and he found it similarly disappointing. In my opinion, I struggle to believe that all the praise in the earlier reviews is genuine, but hey, I could be wrong ;)
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on 15 April 2010
A truly must read book. Neel Burton clearly has a real gift of communicating complex ideas in a highly approachable, interesting, and succinct way.
This book is, I believe, a unique guide through fascinating philosophical truths and psychological ideas, which really does have the potential to change your life and perspective on the world. I'm immensely pleased I've read it; I can't recommend it highly enough.
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on 20 August 2011
Given the diversity of views so far expressed it is odd that I seem to agree with almost all of them. The book is a fascinating and accessible introduction to some of the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and others but as a philosophy primer it misses the mark, then it doesn't claim that this is its purpose. My disappointment I guess is that it does fail in its stated purpose as a guide to the Art of Failure. If, as I believe Dr Burton is trying to say, we define failure as underachievement in terms of current social indicators of success such as work, wealth, possession and celebrity then far more stress should be places upon just how shallow and insignificant these indicators are. Maybe more emphasis could have been given to the studies alluded to in the book as to how little satisfaction is likely to be gained from this sort of `success', and how we should accept this sort of `failure' if it allows us to succeed in more meaningful ways. IMHO the book could have and should have given far more weight to this more current research and depended less upon the empirical arguments of classical philosophers.

I certainly agree with comments about style and structure I found the language circumlocutory and the style repetitive. With well crafted insights often obscured by an unnecessarily large amount of `supporting argument'. Though most of these insights seem fairly self evident they do benefit from being clearly stated, i.e. fearing death is foolhardy given its inevitability and once this inevitability is accepted then fear of anything else can be overcome, love and its deeper manifestation true friendship should be valued above possessions, and given the finite nature of our existence we should really think very deeply about what we want to do with it are all points well made, but should it have taken 200 pages to make them - I personally think not.

All that said I do not regret buying or reading it, but would definitely suggest that anyone looking for clear-cut advice on how to live their lives should definitely look elsewhere, so here the `Anti self help' subtitle really does ring true.
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on 1 March 2010
I read the first chapter of this new book by Neel Burton, it makes perfect sense.I cannot wait to read the rest. It can be read in one sitting or dipped into, just the kind of book I like.
This slim volume is a gem, written in an accesible way, with erudite literary references and common sense illustrations about human experience. I was particularly amused by the cover illustration.
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on 18 March 2011
The Art of Failure - The Anti Self-Help Guide I found this book was OK, but not for me. It definately is not a self-help, so it's true to it's title, although i found the author was just reciting the readings from original philosophers. This book had entries in from Philosopers such as Freud and Jung, but I have already read original books and autobiographies from these great men, that i found this book just to be a repeat. I thought it would have been something a bit different, but i found it not to be for me. I like to read originals.
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