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20 January 2003

The glory of failure

From The Office to Estelle Morris, we are learning that success is not everything

By Hilary Burden

I looked up from my paper and out of the cafe window just in time to see a pedestrian complete the end trajectory of a fall, face down on to the pavement. She struggled and failed to get up, so I left the coffee shop to help her. As I did so, I realised in quick succession that she was: a) carrying a walking stick; b) painfully thin; c) couldn’t speak; and d) was shaking, not with cold, but with MS.

It seemed inconceivable that she could have walked anywhere on her own. I asked if she was hurt and she shook her head. She waved her walking stick in front of her and made odd, skipping (but practised) movements, and then I realised she was trying to catch her bus. We made it to her bus stop in time, I helped her on, and she thanked me with her eyes. I went back to the coffee shop and read my paper.

Every day, that woman must leave her house knowing and trusting that someone will help her up if she happens to fall over. Or surely she wouldn’t ever leave home? To trust life to embrace your own failure and still make it roughly to where you want to get is a rare form of courage. Kipling said it better in “If”, but Woody said it most pithily of all in Toy Story, when he commented on his rival, the new space toy Buzz Lightyear: “He’s not flying, he’s just falling with style.”

It would be glib to say that falling with style is the new form of success. But there is a lot of it around. It’s what Estelle Morris did three months ago when she didn’t have to resign as education secretary, but did. Politics is still the way to change the world, she said, but not at the cost of one’s humanity. There must be more admission of failure, she said, more readiness to admit uncertainty.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, showed a similar streak of self-doubt, so uncharacteristic of those in power, when he said around the time of his appointment: “You’ve got to know that I will fail. I won’t or can’t do everything right.”

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And the newly crowned king of comedy Ricky Gervais celebrated his success with his TV series The Office by failing his fans and announcing that he won’t be doing another series, as he doesn’t think he’s got one in him that would be good enough.

Unusually, these are people of influence acknowledging their fallibility. This is not about subverting victimhood into heroism, appointing an Orwellian underclass as top dog, making failure your raison d’etre (in the style of Lord Sutch, for example, who lost 41 elections), or being a martyr. It is a far more complex concept.

Successful failure (or fallible success) is a hell of a lot more complicated than an end- of-term course mark, a soundbite, a table, a list, or a declaration of war would allow. Who would take responsibility for events that appear not to have an immediate and absolute answer or result?

We are driven to achieve closure and judgement in a world that might actually benefit from more openness and curiosity in the face of an uncertain future.

So fear of failure is prized over the screaming need to get to know ourselves better. And public life teaches us to hide our humanity beneath a thick skin – the kind of skin (arrogant, rude and posturing) fashioned by Nicholas Soames, who called Yvette Cooper “boy” in the House of Commons so recently.

Will Cooper need to have the same thick hide to survive at high level in this environment, as Estelle Morris suggested she herself needed as education secretary? I hope not. If failure were more praised, thin skins would be worn more easily.

Failure is normally the preserve of childhood, not grown-up politicians. As kids, we are meant to learn from our mistakes until we are adult enough not to make them or clever enough to cover them up. But falling with style throughout our lives is a far more knowing proposition. It is this idea of living with a sense of the fallible that the 19th-century philosopher C S Peirce advocated: “The first step toward finding out is to acknowledge that you do not satisfactorily know already; so that no blight can so surely arrest all intellectual growth as the blight of cocksureness.”

We can do without the cocksureness of Soames and his ilk. I would suggest he look for inspiration to the character of Phoebe in the US sitcom Friends. She is the queen of fallible, frequently gaining the upper hand and the best laughs when she is defeated by life. In the end, the best failure is that you admit to it, rather than have someone else thrust it upon you.

Maybe we should ponder the words of David Brent: “Accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue.”

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