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Recently, I've been contemplating the idea of failure, in part because I've written a first draft of a novel, and I'm now taking it to critique groups to get other people's thoughts. My ultimate goal is to be published, but I know that not everyone who writes a novel gets published, and not all of it is because the novel isn't worthwhile. Sometimes the agent just doesn't see a market for what the author wrote. But, I digress.
I started out with the thought that I was going to write a blog post about reasons to fail. And, in general, there are some good reasons. For example, we learn from failure. James Dyson points out that he failed 5,126 times before he got his vacuum right, but each time he got closer to his goal. In her article on “Why We Should Fail Whenever Possible,” Mary Jaksch points out that failure can recommit us to our goal. Sometimes if we fail, it makes the idea of succeeding that much more important.
History is filled with stories of famous people's failures. For example, Albert Einstein didn't learn to speak until he was almost 4, and his teacher said he wouldn't amount to much. Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as a news anchor because of the way she looked. The Beatles were rejected by Decca Recordings because they didn't like their sound, and they said, “they have no future in show business.” Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for not being creative enough. Talk about open mouth insert foot. Clearly, failing isn't the same as being a failure.
However, not everyone who works hard becomes rich and famous. I wanted to talk about the myth that if you just work hard enough you will be wealthy, or at least well off. I was reading an article called “The Invention of Failure: An Interview with Scott A. Sandage.” Mr. Sandage wrote a book about failure called, “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.” Sandage points out that we can all think of people who don't work hard, but who are wealthy, Paris Hilton comes to mind. We can also think of people who work very hard but are barely able to make ends meet. Sandage says that there has been a change in the meaning of the word failure throughout the Industrial Revolution. The phrase, “I feel like a failure,” would never appear in American writing before 1860. However, due to several factors, including the creation of credit rating, we began to associate lack of wealth with moral failings. Phrases such as “A number 1,” “good for nothing,” “second rate” and “of no account” all came from credit rating terminology, but later turned into idioms describing a person's identity. Before the Civil War, one wouldn't say, “I am a failure,” instead one would say, “I made a failure,” meaning he went bankrupt. This phrase, “I made a failure,” has very different implications compared to those of the contemporary phrase, “I am a failure.” Making a failure meant that someone overreached and was too ambitious. As opposed to today, when failure is often defined as someone who doesn't do enough and who lacks ambition.
So what does that mean for our culture now? Well, in part, it means that we've created a culture in which success and failure are measured in dollar bills. I was watching the Colbert Report from October 11th, and he had on guest Chrystia Freeland who studied the ultra-rich, or “Plutocrats.” In the interview with Colbert she talks about how we all recognize that we live in a winner-take-all society. She gives the example of people trying to get their kids into the very best pre-school they possibly can because they want them to eventually get good jobs and thus be successful. There's a large argument in the field of education that we teach our children to be afraid of failure, and thus being afraid to try new things. We want the best for our families and ourselves, which is why we are constantly striving to surpass the others around us.
Yet, we have to recognize that not all can be in the top 1% of wealth, it's statistically impossible. We all want to be successful, which by definition usually means wealthy. Even though we know that past the point of middle-class, increased wealth doesn't increase our happiness. To me, this sounds similar to my struggle with sugary foods. I may at one moment want a milk chocolate bar with almonds and Himalayan salt, but I know that in the long run it doesn't get me what I want. I may want to be rich, but in the end it doesn't mean I'll be happy. It doesn't even mean I'm a good person. It just means I have money.
My point isn't: give up, you'll never be wealthy or that you shouldn't keep striving to become better. No far from it. I'm still going to try to get published and become a well-known author. Einstein, Walt Disney, The Beatles wouldn't have been great if they didn't keep trying. My point is more that we should have a wider definition of success. I have a friend who sees success in the journey, and I really want to cultivate a perspective like hers. She's a writer as well, and she says that she is successful just because she wrote a book and sent it to an agent. The book got rejected by that agent, but that doesn't make her a failure. I want that perspective. I want not to see success solely in terms of dollar bills but in the journey I take in my life.
I guess my point is of both perseverance and acceptance. We keep going, keep growing, to become more than what we are. (If you read my post last week, you also might recognize that this is one way to increase our overall happiness). But if we fall short, if you don't become a famous rapper, basketball star, or writer, you shouldn't see yourself as a failure. I think we should take success out of terms of business, and put it in terms of community. Are you successful at being a father/mother? Friend? Spouse? Focusing on success in terms of community seems to be a good start to stopping the winner-take-all mentality that we have encouraged in our culture. Focusing on helping others also seems like a good way to increase happiness, and become a successful person, not just a successful businessman/businesswoman.