Liza Mundy is rightly perplexed. As America grinds its way through what feels like a decline, more and more people are feeling like they have failed.
In her words:
It seems no accident that after a punishing half decade in which failure descended upon millions in the forms of foreclosure, job loss, factory shutdowns, workplace realignment, growing economic inequality, and dwindling options, we delight in hearing that NASA, according to Dweck, prefers to hire aspiring astronauts who have failed and bounced back, rather than those who have enjoyed easy successes.
The self-help industry has noticed and is offering its own snake oil. It is telling people not to feel ashamed of failure because failure is just another step toward success. It’s gotten to the point where some people are wearing their failures as badges of pride.
It is very peculiar indeed. Mundy expresses it well:
Now is the time for all good men to fail. Good women, too. Fail early and often, and don’t be shy about admitting it. Failing isn’t shameful; it’s not even failure. Such is the message of a growing body of self-help and leadership literature. “Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?” asks the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in which she argues that a willingness to court failure can be a precursor to growth. Dweck holds, persuasively, that successful people are not the ones who cultivate a veneer of perfection, but rather those who understand that failing is part of getting smarter and better.
Clearly there are a few kernels of truth here. Many people have succeeded after having failed. And many unsuccessful people have become so demoralized by their failures that they cannot move forward.
It makes sense to believe that success involves knowing how to deal with failure.
Mundy is right to find it bizarre that self-helpists are encouraging people to advertise their failures.
This is clearly an error. If you have failed, other people are likely to see you as a failure. The best way to change the perception is to accumulate a series of successes.
If you show off your failure the image will become more ingrained in the minds of other people. They will soon believe that you are making a shameless plea for sympathy and even charity.
Evidently, the self-help crowd has made misread a common custom. In many cultures people who fail make public apologies. If an executive fails at his job he apologizes in public. His apology takes the onus off of his staff.
Yet, public apology, accompanied by anguish, does not advertise failure. Executives who fail and apologize usually retire from public life, at least for a decent period of time.
In some, but not all cases, people who have failed do come back, but it depends on the nature of the failure.
When is a public figure’s failure a sign of abiding character flaws, and when is it a harbinger of growth? When is an attempted comeback a marker of tenacity, and when is it a red flag signifying a delusional lack of self-awareness?
Mundy believes that our celebrity and scandal laden culture no longer sees indiscretions as failures. As long as the failure does not concern job performance we are willing to overlook it. The example of Bill Clinton immediately comes to mind.
Yet, even the American public has its limits. The public might have ignored Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions if he had not, even after he apologized, continued to do what he swore he would never again do.
The self-help industry would like us to see failure as part of a good life story. Yet, as Mundy points out correctly, this industry is really treating human beings as literary characters living out narratives.
In her words:
Other people’s failures, served up with the right ratio of struggle to eventual redemption, are interesting to watch. Failure and recovery make for a grand narrative, transforming an ordinary person or politician into something more like a literary character. Like odysseys and coming-of-age stories and parables of exile, failure gives a life or a career a pleasing dramatic arc. Bill Clinton’s failures and flaws, along with his political genius, are part of what make him one of the most compelling public figures of our time.
Mundy is implying that we value entertainment over good character. She also implies that we do not understand that successful public figures set the standard for behavior. The more we idolize Bill Clinton the more we are going to find people emulating his example.
One appreciates that the self-help gurus want us to see failure as a life lesson. They want to encourage us not to feel defeated.
Unfortunately, diminishing or numbing the pain of failure does not necessarily impel people toward success. It might suggest that failure is not really so bad, so why bother to work hard to succeed. Placing failure within a grand narrative might also suggest that people do not need to work very hard to succeed… because success will inevitably be theirs.
If we make failure a fetish, in Mundy’s language, we might slack off and take it easy. If failure is a prelude to success why would two or three or many failures not be preludes to even greater success?
The cure for failure is repeated success. Yet, the solution does not lie in making ourselves into fictional characters. The solution lies in hard work, extra effort that is based on an awareness that we are responsible for our failures and that we must move forward.
And then there’s the strange case of Barack Obama. Upon assuming the mantle of presidential leadership, Mundy explains, Obama had never really known failure. There is some question of whether he earned his many successes, but apparently he had never failed.
Munch continues that even when Obama fails as president, he refuses to admit it. He just plows ahead, oblivious.
In Mundy’s words:
Which may be why Barack Obama, circa 2013, seems such a surprisingly flat and uncompelling figure. Though his childhood did impose adversity, Obama experienced little failure in adulthood; his campaign record includes just one electoral loss—to Bobby Rush in a 2000 congressional run—which was superseded by victory in his 2004 race for the U.S. Senate. It’s as if he was fast-forwarded into the White House, without being tested or tempered. It’s not clear that his recent clashes with implacable opponents or difficult foreign leaders or the sluggish U.S. economy have provoked a spate of post-traumatic growth. He seems untransformed by his setbacks in office. It’s almost as if he has gotten the story backwards, flipped the narrative. Success is supposed to come after failure, not before. When the reverse happens—when spectacular success is followed by failure or even just fumbling—the central character seems diminished rather than enlarged, optimism feels harder to come by, and the story just doesn’t have that stirring sense of downfall and digging-out that we seem, irresistibly, to want.
A nation that elects someone who has never failed and that refuses to hold him to account does not understand failure. It has diminished the pain of failure by placing it within a narrative where it inevitably leads to success.
To Mundy’s point, self-help gurus who fetishize failure are not showing people how to overcome it. They are telling people to see failure as yet another success story.