I spent the afternoon recently talking about failure, and I can’t tell you how good it’s made me feel. It was an interview for Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast, in which she talks to successful people about three notable failures in their lives. I chose a university interview, a driving test and a course of hypnotherapy, and we spent a happy hour chatting about things that go wrong and how they tend to have unexpected consequences.
It was so refreshing. In promo mode, which is where I am right now, you often dwell endlessly on your achievements and successes, talking about your work as though it has turned out exactly as you wanted it, when the little nagging voice in the back of your head, the one that could write all your own bad reviews, is quietly singing most of the time: “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I had not forgotten them.” (And as a side-note, Jackson Browne was 16 years old when he wrote that lyric. No one feels failure as acutely as a teenager.)
I’d already heard about the podcast from my 21-year-old daughter, who is a fan, finding it a brilliant antidote to the narrative of The Perfect Life that young people constantly encounter. Selfies and Instagram and Fomo – we’re all familiar now with how much pressure there is for them to flit from one high to another. Talking about the lows, and the fails, and how they are inevitable, and survivable, can be such a relief.
I think I’ve always been drawn to the notion of failure. I wrote a song called “Downhill Racer”, which talks about how people can often be more likeable on the downward trajectory of a pop career: “I could almost like you/Now it’s nearly over/Now you’ve shown some weakness/Now you’re looking over your shoulder.”
I don’t mean to get all Morrissey on you. “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, that sort of thing. It’s more that the troubles of life are what unite us. Day is aware of the possible pitfalls of her approach, that it might look like humble-bragging to catalogue the small missteps in an otherwise successful life. Is it glib, she asks in her forthcoming book, to talk of failure when your life looks like a shining triumph?
I get that. But like her, I can see that it’s interesting to look at how we interpret personal setbacks and how these are often universal experiences: failed job interviews, infertility, divorce, illness. Human frailty, vulnerability, and, ultimately, that one great failure none of us can avoid, mortality – they glue us together, or should do. As Hank Williams sang, none of us is getting out of this world alive.
I think of Ben’s illness, which struck him when he was an otherwise fit and healthy 29-year-old. Out of the blue, some invisible and unsuspected genetic weakness left him fighting for his life in an intensive care unit, both of us looking death full in the face before even reaching our 30th birthdays. When he wrote about it, in his book Patient, he captured so insightfully the experience of the unwell person, the owner of a sick body, that countless doctors and nurses have told him they learned from it.
If failures are where we have to acknowledge our essential powerlessness, then illness demonstrates that to us more clearly than anything. It’s why I worry about the cult of wellness: the idea that we are responsible for our own health carries with it the implicit message that illness is our fault, when nothing could be further from the truth. I picture sometimes the shock some might feel when, after all the exercise and dieting, they get ill, or just old, anyway.
And I write this in the middle of a week I have been looking forward to for a year: the publication of my book. All my dreams have been full of scenes of celebration. Instead, I am sitting on a train between Birmingham and Bristol, battling a cold that has finally got the upper hand after I failed to defeat it, and my eardrum has just perforated.
I’ll have to cancel my next reading event and take to my bed. So is this another failure? Or merely my body reminding me that I’m flesh and blood? Just the usual. Just life.
This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State