The success of failure
Failure is a big industry these days. Every week or two, we hear reports of some high tech executive saying he wants to hire people who have tried something and failed.
And now, to put the icing on the cake, next month the “Museum of Failure” is going to open in Helsingborg, Sweden. Admission is free. The museum will display over 60 examples of product failures—like Google Glass and Harley- Davidson perfume—under the unifying slogan of “learning is the only way to turn failure into success.” Failure has attained institutional stature.
What is the function of failure, you ask? “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently,” said Henry Ford. “Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success,” stated C. S. Lewis. Even Johnny Cash got in on the action: “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”
Failure doesn’t come in just one flavour, however. You can conduct an experiment which either fizzles or blows up your house. You have failed in both cases, and you may have learned the same lesson with either outcome, but it may take you a lot longer to be ready to try again in the second instance.
Failure, say some, breeds the resilience that is needed eventually to succeed. Winston Churchill described success as “going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Maya Angelou said “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” And let us not forget the immortal Calvin Coolidge, who said “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
All right. Let us suppose that in addition to a healthy crop of failures on your resume you have enthusiasm, selfknowledge, persistence and determination. Let us even suppose you have talent, genius and education to boot. None of those things guarantee success, although they may shorten the odds in your favour. Timing and chance play a large role as well. And these are pretty much beyond your control. It’s enough to deter the most hardy specimen from attempting to transform failure into success.
One element that is under your control, as the self-help books like to remind us, is that you can define for yourself what constitutes success. You can’t find a job that pays you a decent wage? Well, redefine yourself as successful because you are living an ascetic existence free from the strains of the material lifestyle. Problem solved!
Well, hold on just a minute on that one. A recent book entitled “The Wellness Syndrome,” takes dead aim at those who spout the view that life’s challenges are all within our own control. You can’t ignore the fact, say the authors, that one’s failure to obtain suitable employment may be just as much or more the result of economic policy than a failure of personal karma.
Maybe we should take some comfort in the fact that there are those who say that success, too soon, can be toxic. Good judgment and maturity come from the rough and tumble experiences of starting at the bottom and working your way up, they say. Success too early in life leads to aimlessness in mid-life. And the early success of those who are both gifted and lucky – Time magazine uses Taylor Swift as its example – can lead to an unhealthy expectation among the rest of us that success is the norm, and a crushing defeatism when one can’t measure up to the standard.
Just think, there but for fortune I could have been another Justin Bieber, egging houses in Malibu, urinating in trash cans and generally putting my adolescence on display for all the world to see. No sir. Give me failure every time—especially if I get to redefine it as success.