The Art of Failure

What is success, and is it worth the sacrifice? A psychiatrist and philosopher searches for a better, freer way of living.

Some people would rather die than think. In fact, they do.
—Bertrand Russell

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.

This mind-bending, award-winning book, written by an Oxford psychiatrist and philosopher, explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved.

An extraordinarily wide ranging mix of psychology and philosophy covering most of human behaviour from madness to happiness and the meaning of life, and encountering ghosts and death on the way … Brilliant. Neel Burton has already won several prizes … and this volume deserves another. —The British Medical Association Book Awards

A unique perspective… [Neel Burton] delivers on the provocative and intriguing promise inherent in this work’s title… He provides a fascinating exploration of topics ranging from courage and death to madness and ataraxia, offering the reader a meaty analysis of these subjects and more. —The BookLife Prize (Quarter-finalist)

In this eye-opening read, psychiatrist Neel Burton explains… that by redefining what it means to achieve, we can avoid failure and gain control over our lives. —BookBub (Featured New Release)

An enlightening guide on the beauty and importance of failure … It’s full of common sense, warm realism, and the kind of wisdom you wish you could have taken in when you were younger … Burton writes from a place of authority and experience, and you feel as if you have finally found the compassionate, tailor-made advice that you’ve been looking for. If you want to re-examine your life and goals and perhaps find deep happiness, [this book] can help you get there. —Tammy Ruggles for Readers’ Favorite

A demanding, provocative and ultimately transformative read. Give it a try and see how you get on. —The International Review of Books

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown everything up into the air, straining our coping mechanisms and forcing us to re-examine our assumptions, priorities, and whole way of living. But in crisis there is also great opportunity, and this very timely book lights us the way. —Dr Chris Chopdar, clinical psychiatrist

Neel is an incredibly insightful and elegant writer, with a deep knowledge of all he surveys. —Dr James Davies, medical anthropologist and psychotherapist, author of Cracked

I’ve read many Neel Burton books. He’s a wonderful writer and able to immerse you lightly in pretty heavy stuff. —Adrian Bailey, Vine Voice

★★★★★ This book saved my life. — reviewer

About the author

Dr Neel Burton FRSA is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. He is a Fellow of Green-Templeton College in the University of Oxford, and the recipient of the Society of Authors’ Richard Asher Prize, the British Medical Association’s Young Authors’ Award, the Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award, and a Best in the World Gourmand Award. His work has featured in the likes of Aeon, the Spectator, and the Times, and been translated into several languages.


1. Mania
2. Freedom
3. Fear
4. Courage
5. Death
6. Values
7. Kings
8. Ghosts
9. Madness
10. Meaning
11. Happiness
12. Ataraxia
13. Friendship
14. Love

The Anti Self-Help Guide

Since the end of the Second World War, real term incomes in countries such as the US and UK have increased dramatically, but happiness has not kept apace. In fact, people today are considerably less happy than back then: we have less time, we are more alone, and so many of our number are on antidepressants that trace quantities of fluoxetine have been detected in the water supply. 

Although economists focus on the absolute size of salaries, several sociological studies have found that the effect of money on happiness results less from the things that money can buy (absolute income effect) than from comparing one’s income to that of others, and in particular to that of one’s peers (relative income effect). This is a large part of the explanation as to why people today are no happier than were their grandparents and great-grandparents: despite being considerably richer and healthier, they have only just managed to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. 

But there is more. If I am to believe all that I see in the media, happiness is to be six foot tall or more and to have bleached teeth and a firm abdomen, all the latest clothes, accessories, and electronics, a picture-perfect partner who is both a great lover and a terrific friend, an assortment of healthy and happy children, a large house in a good neighbourhood, a second property in an idyllic holiday location, a top-of-the-range car to shuttle back and forth from the one to the other, a clique of friends with whom to have fabulous dinner parties, three or four foreign holidays a year, and, of course, a prestigious job that does not detract from any of the above. 

There are at least three major problems that I can see with this and similar ideals of happiness. First, it represents a state of affairs that is impossible to attain to and that is, therefore, in itself an important source of unhappiness.. Second, it is situated in an idealized and hypothetical future rather than an imperfect but actual present in which true happiness is much more likely to be found, albeit with an altered frame of mind. And third, it has largely been defined by economic and even social and political interests that have little to do with true happiness, which has far more to do with the practice of reason and the peace of mind that this eventually brings. 

In short, it is not just that the bar for happiness is set too high, but also that it is set in the wrong place, and that it is, in fact, the wrong bar. Jump and you’ll only break your back. 

The Art of Failure struck a chord with me because artists, through their art, explore the same fears and problems that Burton does… But anyone from any background would learn a lot from this book. —Rod Judkins, artist, lecturer, and author of The Art of Creative Thinking

Purchase now from Amazon or Apple, or go back to the Ataraxia series page.