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15 August 2023

Celebrating failure is a mistake

There is no such thing as a “teachable moment”.

By Josh Mcloughlin

“Tell me about a time you failed” used to be a recruitment banality. But failure has become a cultural obsession.

Novelists, actors and celebrities queue up to recount their personal and professional fiascos on Elizabeth Day’s phenomenally successful podcast How to Fail, which was spun out into two books: How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong and Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong. A bestselling author and journalist, Day’s big idea is “celebrating the things that haven’t gone right” and “understanding that why we fail ultimately makes us stronger”.

H Jon Benjamin, voice of Sterling Archer in the eponymous Emmy Award-winning animated series, published his memoir Failure is an Option in 2018. “You can fail and be happy,” he tells readers, because failure “doesn’t mean the end of something. Often, it’s a springboard toward something better.” On TV, I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002) tapped into a thirst for watching others flail at life, providing the blueprint for tragicomic dramas of personal and professional failure like Peep Show (2003-15), The Inbetweeners (2008-10), Girls (2012-17), People Just Do Nothing (2014-18) and Fleabag (2016-19).

Even academics have become preoccupied with failure. Colin Feltham’s 2012 book Failure informs us that the suggestion anything or anyone might avoid failure is a recent one. Until the decline of religion in Europe, everyone was assumed tainted by original sin. The “loss of Eden”, as John Milton called it, was the first failure from which all other imperfections flowed. Feltham’s secular analysis reaches the same conclusion: the iron law of entropy means failure – of everything, everywhere – is inevitable. In If You Should Fail (2020), Joe Moran, a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, says failure (“nothing to be ashamed of” but “nothing to celebrate either”) is hardwired into humanity. Moran’s “book of solace” offers to teach us how to live with it.

A new book by the Romanian-American philosopher Costica Bradatan is the latest contribution to the literature on failure. In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility, advocates “failure-based therapy” by examining four famous “failures”: the French activist and mystic Simone Weil, who starved herself to death in solidarity with victims of the Second World War; Mahatma Gandhi, whose “compulsive need for purity and perfection… brought him into dangerous proximity with Robespierre”; the fascist-nihilist Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran; and Yukio Mishima, the nationalist Japanese novelist who committed seppuku after failing to inspire a coup in 1970. Bradatan argues that the humility engendered by failure “gives us the chance to be healed of hubris and egocentrism, of self-illusion and self-deception”, which threaten our world and erode the foundation of democratic politics.

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That failure is a teacher has been a truism for millennia. But why the sudden fetishisation of failure from podcasts, memoirs and sitcoms to the academic presses?

The late University of Chicago philosopher Lauren Berlant’s hugely influential 2011 book Cruel Optimism provides a clue. Berlant thought that the American Dream and the post-war liberal consensus utterly failed to fulfil their lofty promises: equality, justice, peace and economic and social mobility for all. “Cruel optimism” describes how those dreams still dangle before us, despite being unrealisable. In Berlant’s view, the most pressing issue now is not how to flourish or live the “good life” – the cornerstone of the ethical philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Ibn Rushd and Confucius  – but merely how to adapt and survive in a failed world.

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Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy (2020) and Robert D Kaplan’s The Tragic Mind (2023) both take after Berlant by reflecting on the abject failure of the “liberal rules-based order” and the passage into an era of resource scarcity, ecological collapse and the return of great-power rivalry.

[See also: Delusions of failure]

Failure has defined the twenty-first century. The Iraq War exposed the failure of media scrutiny, popular peaceful protest and the (delusional) moral superiority of the West. The 2007-08 financial crisis revealed the failure of financial institutions, property speculation and governmental oversight. The Covid-19 pandemic will be remembered as a tragic failure shot through with corruption, recklessness and incompetence. Post-Cold War triumphalism resulted not in the “end of history” but a lethal failure (once again) of peace in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Climate change is an apocalyptic failure in progress.

Perhaps watching the earth and our institutions deteriorate around us in real-time has prompted these reflections on failure. Day defines “failure” in opposition to the “age of curated perfection” driven by social media. But the irony is that the people who feature on her podcast, not least Day herself, are by any measure extremely successful, including: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sebastian Faulks, Jarvis Cocker, Graham Norton, Bernadine Evarsito, Kazuo Ishiguro, Caitlin Moran and Alain de Botton.

Successful people slapping each other’s backs and telling the rest of us that failure is OK primes us to accept failure as a fact of life. But for most people, failure isn’t a stepping stone to a bestselling novel or media career. Learning about celebrities’ minor cock-ups will not help those who are truly “unsuccessful” by capitalist standards, often due to a scarcity of resources, jobs, homes and opportunities over which they have no control. 

Is failing to escape the rent trap a “teachable moment”? Is relying on a food bank “learning how to succeed better”? No amount of humility and self-abasement about your shortcomings is going to remedy those failures. “It’s OK to fail,” the haves tell the have-nots. But the valorisation of celebrity failure risks distracting us from the profound social, political, institutional, economic and ecological failures that threaten our present and future.

Certainly, honesty about our shortcomings is better than the aggressive hubris of Andrew Tate or the confident stupidity of the average Tory cabinet member, and few would disagree with Bradatan that there should be more humility in public life. For the majority of people, however, the most pressing concern isn’t pride and vanity but trying to survive in a world filled with disaster, uncertainty and scarcity.

It is a dark irony that the postmodernist Samuel Beckett is the source of the most grating cliché about failure. In Worstward Ho the narrator says: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Life coaches and business consultants rarely read beyond the fourth paragraph, but Beckett’s narrator continues: “Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” Beckett offers not a pep talk but a warning: failure is not a “stepping stone” to success. More often than not, failure leads only to more failure: the title Worstward Ho makes clear the direction of travel.

The failure fetish is marketed as a tonic to our toxic culture of success but only reinforces the inequalities at the root of the world’s most pressing problems. The most urgent failures, as Beckett’s narrator puts it, are “pending worse still”.

[See also: The witchcraft generation]

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