Delusions of failure

We are drawn to the idea that we can turn our mistakes into milestones – but there are no great lessons to be learned from losing.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

For some time now, failure has been a hot commodity. Not failure as we have traditionally understood it, which was a kind of ending, the termination of effort. The new failure is instead a sexy and improved version. This is failure as a stepping stone, as a transitional period. It is failure as a necessary milestone in the lives of the ultimately fabulously successful.

The unpleasant Trump supporter and men’s rights activist, Scott Adams, also the creator of the widely syndicated Dilbert cartoons, wrote a book in 2013 called How To Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and another in 2019 named Loserthink. Other popular titles from various authors include: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Failing Forward, and The Value of Failure. The British writer Elizabeth Day found enormous success with her podcast, How To Fail With Elizabeth Day in which she interviews famous or notable guests about their experiences with failure. Day followed the podcast with a well-received book, part memoir and part self-help, How To Fail. She has recently published another, Failosophy, more of which later.

Tech companies have created a “fail-fast” system; a culture in which there is no room for what could be genuinely called failure, but only a series of experiments which lead inevitably and inexorably to the conclusion of success. I find it all exhausting. Failure once allowed you to stop trying – that was, famously, the one good thing it has going for it. Having agonised over a doomed project for years, at least you might have the cathartic relief of finally and permanently throwing it away. You were allowed self-pity. You were allowed, crucially, silence.

[see also: The dark side of the wellness industry]

I came to Joe Moran’s book If You Should Fail with no small measure of dread for these reasons, anticipating yet more advice on how to spin lead into gold, or perhaps magic beans. Thankfully what I found was a ­calming antidote to the world of ­professionally failing. This is what one might call – with the highest of regard – a useless book. There are no diktats on how to use failure to your advantage. There are no inspirational quotes about getting back up again when you have fallen down, or about the only true failure being a lack of ambition. Mercifully, there was no earnest implementation of the Beckett quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, but instead a brief and elegant deconstruction of the ways in which that line tends to be misinterpreted.

What Moran has created is a slim, lyrical and blessedly cool-headed reflection on failure as a universally shared human trial. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” writes Moran in the book’s introduction, “but nothing to celebrate either. Mostly it’s just a waste of time, something none of us mortals ever has enough of.” What he provides, instead of the mechanical business strategies laid out in some popular failure titles, is a selection of fascinating and often moving lives, characterised in some way by their failure.

****

The failure is sometimes objective and verifiable. A chapter on examinations recounts the system of imperial China, in which even a single false character in a Confucius quote could damn the candidate (who was rarefied to begin with, as peasants, traders and artisans could not afford to sit the exam). A Shandong writer, Pu Songling (1640-1715), failed his exam at the age of 20 and never stopped re-trying for the rest of his life. His wife begged him to stop when they were in their 50s, but on he went until after she had died and he was 72.

Others are more subjective and self- declared. Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian writer born in 1916 who suffered terrible losses during the Second World War, characterised herself primarily as a failure, plagued by laziness and incompetence. She was, if anything, unusually industrious. At weekends she let herself into the publishing house Einaudi where she worked, completing numerous pieces of significant translation. This work was motivated by her unshakeable conviction that she was of no use, that regardless of output she would remain a failure. The failure was the true part of her, and the work only a symptom – a false one – of how troubled that failure made her.

John Osborne’s 1959 musical The World of Paul Slickey was greeted by seemingly unanimous contempt. Noël Coward wrote of it in his diary: “Never in all my theatrical experience have I seen anything so appalling. . . such bad taste that one wanted to hide one’s head.” Osborne was followed by disgruntled audience members shouting insults at him. He later wrote: “I must be the only playwright this century to have been pursued up a London street by an angry mob.” This sort of failure is moreish and fun to read about, a hilarious and dramatic upset in an otherwise cherished and respected career. It can’t have been pleasant for Osborne, but nor did it really matter to the wider concern of whether his life was a successful one.

More melancholy is the story of the Soho character Paul Potts, a writer whose professional life never solidified despite reasonable talent, plentiful energy and boundless desire. As his early and minor successes dwindled away not to be repeated, he became known for his eccentric behaviour as much as any work he produced: “He once stole a Corona typewriter from Iris Murdoch because, he said, he needed it more than she did. The Soho writer Jeffrey Bernard… once saw Potts stop dead in the street, gaze skywards and scream.”

There would be no redemptive ending to his story – he died alone in 1990 after setting fire to his bed. “The only difference between me and a real artist is that I am not one,” he once wrote. But Moran does not include him to mourn the failure of his life. Although Potts could not, in any real sense, have been said to succeed in his aims, Moran can’t describe his life as a failure. Perhaps this is the crucial feeling behind the solace which the book promises; that even when failure never transcends itself and becomes success, it does not mean that the life it belongs to is itself a failure. Or perhaps that even when a life is a failure, it is not a wasted life – for there can be no such thing as a wasted life, the very incidence of life in each case being unlikely and basically miraculous.

****

Moran speaks of solace as being the opposition of what the critic Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”. He writes: “Certain kinds of optimism are crueller than pessimism because they ask us to invest in a future that is at best unlikely and at worst a fantasy.” Unfortunately, Elizabeth Day’s new book Failosophy comes mostly under this bracket. Day’s podcast is undeniably compelling, its success no surprise. Recounting failure is a rewarding method of narrative, and Day is a sensitive and intelligent interviewer. This would be more than enough – as Moran’s book illustrates – but problems arise when instead of stories we insist on digesting failure as necessarily instructive.

This is less of a problem in Day’s podcast, where the stories exist on their own merit without much external prodding for the meaning to fall out. But in Failosophy it is a problem, for this is after all a handbook, and is directly instructive – seven failure principles to help the reader, principles like “Failure just is”, “Break ups are not a tragedy” and “Failure is data acquisition”. Peppered throughout are context-free and often maddeningly banal quotes. “‘It’s not going to be plain sailing, especially if you want to be someone great. You have to be prepared to fail sometimes’ – Eniola Aluko, former England women’s football player” is a typical example. Though I generally believe in Day’s sincerity, even when I dislike her approach, it’s hard to see what quotes like that are doing here other than taking up space. Who could be moved by that? What new thought could be provoked?

Day is aware of her own privilege as a middle-class, educated white woman and references these facts, but still it is not very edifying to read about her experiences of imposter syndrome as related to selling out the National Theatre for an onstage event. She goes on to reflect on the fact it was failure itself which allowed her to reach a pinnacle like this, by rendering her vulnerable and open to connection. I truly don’t resent Day – who seems like a lovely woman as well as a highly accomplished writer and broadcaster – her success, but when you are speaking from a place of authority about failure generally, it seems remiss to focus primarily on your own extraordinary success story, or those of famous actors.

It feels a little spiteful to criticise a book like Failosophy, because if it does, indeed, help some people to view their lives a little more optimistically then what does it really matter if I find its approach crass and dishonest. But, actually, I think it does matter – I think that ordinary failures, the ones that happen to people without public platforms and MBEs, are of a different nature than the ones we are pushed to hear about so often nowadays. How can we ignore the immutable fact that some people fail and go on failing, that their lives never recover or never get going in the first place, that there are so many in a hell of their own making or one made by cruel circumstance?

Failure, even when it is not a tragedy, is often the extinguishing of a possible life we may have led, and that is not a reconcilable loss. It may not be very productive to think about those failures, or very pleasant, but what is a consideration of failure without them? Are we to suppose they would have all come good if they had read some inspiring quotes and books? We avoid dwelling on such failures because there is nothing constructive about doing so, nothing much to learn, but accepting that not everything is useful, not everything has a productive outcome, might be as worthwhile a pursuit as insistently refracting our failures to mean something they don’t. 

If You Should Fail: A Book Of Solace 
Joe Moran 
Viking, 176pp, £14.99

Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong 
Elizabeth Day 
Fourth Estate, 160pp, £10

RSS: 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation

Free trial CSS