There is no better time to be a failure. Or, to put it another way, now would seem like a good moment to turn failure into success. The relentless focus on exams at school means most of us are reared to view failure as undesirable, a consequence of not knuckling down and doing your homework. But in the adult world failure is increasingly fetishised and monetised. Setbacks, both major and minor, are evidence of our struggle. We are all the better for having messed up.
This, at least, is the message in the mountain of literature on the topic, which ranges from the advisory to the autobiographical. Self-help books such as The Value of Failure, In Praise of Failure and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big tell us that failure is character-building, a vital learning tool, and that success comes from hard-won lessons. Motivational Ted Talks and podcasts are full of this stuff, many of them confessionals by life coaches or entrepreneurs spewing platitudes about personal journeys, empowerment and positive thinking. Famous types also love talking about their failures. In her Ted Talk the US novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, she of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, reminisces on her struggle as an unpublished author working as a waitress in a diner. In Elizabeth Day’s (paradoxically successful) podcast, How to Fail, Lily Allen, Fearne Cotton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are among those reflecting on their setbacks. Sharing one’s low moments is all very laudable, though such stories are invariably told in the past tense. Because while some struggles may be ongoing, the popular narrative requires the protagonist to have triumphed. And, however genuine the tale, it’s hard to be a wealthy celebrity discussing defeat without sounding like a bit of an arsehole.
Public failure can be chastening, humiliating even. It can also reveal a lot about those who have failed. When Jamie Oliver’s business went down the tubes, shame and regret seemed to leak from his every pore, though whether this can be deemed a “good” failure when so many lost their jobs is something else entirely.
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There is, of course, value in talking honestly about failure. The appearance of perfection is helpful to no one, while the removal of shame around life’s more calamitous moments can only be a good thing. But failure means different things to different people, and our understanding of it is tethered to our definition of success. I think I’ve done all right professionally until I look at some of my university pals who earn three times as much as I do, prompting me to wonder about my choices. I could make a long list of all the things I haven’t done that I wish I had – I’ve yet to conquer my fear of driving; my bestselling book remains stubbornly unwritten; I still don’t know how to reset my boiler. But these aren’t failures so much as plans not followed through.
Real failure? I flunked my maths GCSE twice, which at the time seemed like the end of the world (it wasn’t). For two years I failed to get pregnant, which brought heartache, frustration and moments of real despair. But a round of IVF resulted in pregnancy and a baby, and so failure was turned into success. Go me! Time for my Ted motivational Talk! Except that an inability to conceive didn’t, to my mind, make me a failure any more than having eggs fertilised outside of my body made me a success (though the embryologist clearly deserves a knighthood). There are complex medical reasons why I couldn’t conceive. To reduce such moments to success or failure is unhelpful at a time when you are raw and vulnerable. If there is one thing that should be understood about real failure, it is that it is often due to circumstances beyond our control.
Still, the growing industry around failure suggests that we derive pleasure from the stories of other people’s screw-ups. Is it that we enjoy watching people fail? Perhaps, though more likely there’s a touch of “there but for the grace of God” in there too. We are all, really, a whisker away from catastrophe. Perhaps that is why we like stories of losers coming out on top. The US inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison was told he was stupid by his teachers, and is said to have made more than a thousand attempts to invent the light bulb, but he got there in the end. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein allegedly didn’t speak until he was four years old and was a dead loss at school, but he did all right later too. Such stories are seen as human and endearing, and allow us to imagine that genius resides in us all, if only we could locate it.
Cinema is fascinated with failure – Ed Wood, Inside Llewyn Davis, Sideways and Birdman all provided portraits of lives thwarted or unfulfilled. The documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil told a touching tale of a Canadian rock band that failed to capitalise on early promise and spent years being ignored. The film depicts a disastrous tour in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong. They are skint, and no one comes to their gigs, yet on they plod making albums on the cheap in the hope that one day success will be theirs. Television also loves a loser, chief among them Reggie Perrin, David Brent and Alan Partridge.
Optimism and hubris have sustained the Channel 4 series Grand Designs, but the recently broadcast saga of a record company executive and his dream of a lighthouse on a North Devon cliff edge made for particularly fist-chewing viewing. Three million quid and eight years later, and the unfinished building stands as a monument to one man’s massive failure of judgment. The locals remain livid. It’s worth noting, too, that the presenter Kevin McCloud, who habitually (and often smugly) predicts calamity for other people’s projects, isn’t immune to failure, having watched a portion of his own property empire go into liquidation last year.
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Life is messy, and for most of us, major cock-ups don’t pan out like a film script. Grit and determination only get you so far in life, and not all obstacles are there to be bravely overcome. It’s interesting that we hear less from the longstanding failures: the poets who never got published; the inventors who never got an idea off the ground; the mountaineers who gave up and went home.
Bona fide failure can be life-altering and heart-breaking, but it can also be met with a shrug and a rethink of one’s goals. Either way, to look at failure purely as a precursor to success means that it isn’t truly being embraced. Those motivational speakers who talk loudly about failure may well have had their problems. But the triumph over adversity narrative is, by and large, a privilege belonging to those with a safety net. And having one of those surely makes you a winner.
• Fiona Sturges is an arts writer specialising in books, music, podcasting and TV
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