Failure has never been more popular. Not least among the wildly successful, who’ve been busily redefining this crucial part of life out of existence.
Enter any of Britain’s remaining bookshops and you’ll find whole tables offering libraries of praise for failure. Barely a self-help business management book or a celebrity boastography or a self-satisfied meditation on mindfulness is published which doesn’t hymn the wonder of defeat.
If you liked these, you might also like: ‘The Seven Ways You Must Fail Before Breakfast’, ‘Failheaven (And the 19 Types of Winners You’ll Meet There)’ and ‘Should Children Be Taught To Fail? (And, if so, Why Are We Failing to Stop Failing Children Failing?)’
Companies run seminars on failure, schools set aside days to celebrate it. Fail early, fail often we are exhorted, as if we were a former England international embarking on a managerial career.
It’s an idea that seems appealing culturally. With our one precious shot at existence, it might be beneficial if we were less afraid of failure generally, less concerned about the judgment of others, more resilient and better able to learn from our mistakes.
But this is not what the books are peddling. Theirs is a strange, rebranded kind of failure. It’s failure as a prelude to winning. Failure as a way to talk about the components of success. Failure as an opening to discussions of fearlessness, of the value of prototyping and iteration, of marginal gains and organisational excellence, of ambition and determination, of creativity and taking chances, and of exposing yourself to ridicule but not letting it weigh too heavily as you succeed eventually.
And that’s all valuable stuff. But it’s a trick nonetheless. The use of a seemingly counter-intuitive idea to resell pretty obvious advice is a verbal sleight-of-hand about as sophisticated as a seven-year-old performing their first magic show.
It doesn’t deal with true failure, the kinds of non-achievement, humiliation and shattering disappointment that aren’t a staging post to happiness and fulfilment. This is real failure: failure as losing; a permanent state in which you or one of your actions is given a final ‘F’ grade, determining forever how you or the public judges what happened.
This is not a sexy kind of failure, the kind that generates invitations to publish. We never hear about the power of failure from the washed-up, the indebted, the homeless, the unhappy. Not unless they’ve subsequently broken free of their failure and achieved some kind of success or notoriety. Or unless their failure is being offered up in the papers for mockery and ridicule, as if ordinary people are nothing but sub-human clowns or cautionary tales.
Even the story of failure, then, comes to us from winners, through the lens of survivor bias.
‘My life has been one constant struggle to overcome failure.’
This is failure as a form of social control; a buttress to the continuing accumulation of wealth and opportunity by a small social group. Like being poor, not achieving your ambitions isn’t a sign the system is broken. It’s an indication you haven’t tried hard enough, that you deserve your failure.
And now that the rich and famous have got comfortable with the idea of embracing their failures, they’ve turned it into a form of narcissistic exhibitionism that serves to underscore the magnitude of their triumph. The message from the winners is clear: I have suffered knocks, my life has been a struggle, my success owes nothing to others, and, no, I don’t think I want to pay any more tax, thank you.
The cruellest deception
This is failure that has nothing to say to the vast majority of people who will die without personal success, comfortable wealth or the unanimous acclaim of their colleagues.
Pain, loss and physical and mental decrepitude await us all. Almost none of us will be able to claim we achieved any or all of our most deeply held ambitions. Regret will stalk our thoughts and poison our memories. Most endings will be unhappy ones.
But this is what it is to be human. To pretend otherwise is to set ourselves up for further distress when we discover that failure itself is often not a temporary state. There is not always another chance and struggling against the odds is frequently pointless. In life, opportunities are distributed about as unequally as old school ties.
So, rather than wish it away or try to lull ourselves into believing that, with enough time, we will get all we dream of, I want to say that embracing failure is vital – not just because it can teach us how to succeed, but because it gives colour and texture to life, because it teaches us humility, because it makes for great and tragic spectacles and because winning lacks meaning without an appreciation of losing.
This is never more true than in sport, where tournaments and even careers can be as fleeting as a mayfly and where profound defeat is intrinsic to the majesty of the experience.
‘Why are you looking so down, Austin?’
‘I’m thinking about your career.’
Many people think Peyton Manning is the greatest ever to play the position of quarterback. Even those who don’t think he is one of the five best. He had a stellar career of continual achievement, breaking virtually every QB record and redefining how the position was played. Even in his later years, his almost telepathic understanding of the game astounded fans and opposition players alike.
And yet as recently as two years ago, many people were prepared to describe his career as shaded by failure. The reason? With all his talent and preternatural application, he had only won one Super Bowl. His rival for the greatest-player-of-his-generation title, Tom Brady, meanwhile has four – the same as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, greats from earlier eras. The real burn, though, was that even his fitfully brilliant but frustratingly erratic younger brother, Eli, had two.
That was all set to change in early 2014, when Peyton, only a few years on from what had looked a career-ending neck injury, had rallied physically to set a new single-season record for touchdowns on the way to a Super Bowl against Seattle. Here was the chance to get that second Super Bowl and remove the last blemish from his record.
On the night, though, Denver were thrashed by a marauding Seattle team. Peyton was harried, manhandled and overwhelmed. That, it seemed, was it for him.
But instead of retiring, he played on, his body appreciably failing, his AK-47 arm reduced to a spud-gun. And then, this year, against Carolina, his team won the Super Bowl. In an ironic twist, Manning, for so long the tempo-dictating field marshal, finished the worst year of his career as a passenger on a team capable of winning the Super Bowl with almost anyone playing quarterback.
He got his second Super Bowl and retired, making him both perhaps the best quarterback of all time and certainly the worst quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl.
Failure, it seems, is both relative and a great deal more complex than the ‘fail better’ crowd acknowledge.
There are literally more people in the world with this tattoo than there are people who can name which of Beckett’s works it’s taken from.***
Sport and the true value of failure
Nowhere in the many books ostensibly about failure do they recommend you reach five snooker world finals in a row and lose them all, never to win the biggest prize. They don’t tell the story of being the only team to make four consecutive losing Super Bowls appearances. They do not counsel you to stay at Southampton and win just eight international caps. They do not suggest you take over a struggling team, sign eight players on transfer deadline day and then get relegated anyway. They don’t praise the benefits of blowing up your knee three times and going from player-of-your-generation to out of the game by 28.
It’s no good telling them, “Come on, get up. Try again. Fail better!” They can’t because the game is over, there may not be a chance for redemption till next season – or four years hence if it’s the Olympics or World Cup – and anyway, chances are their body and team won’t hold up that long.
Failure, then – in its proper sense – is essential to sport. Without it, sport is just entertainment. The wonder of Leicester’s impending title win, remarkable as it is, isn’t simply the joy of a small team winning against the odds. It’s every bit as much about the delicious spectacle of the four clubs who’d grown accustomed to buying their success finding that no combination of expensively acquired players or managers had any answer to Ranieri’s miracle. It’s these failures – as much as the successes – that has made this season the most interesting in decades. Triumph and disaster aren’t twin impostors, they’re vital and interdependent states of being.
But if, as a sport fan, you’d read about the empowering effects of failure, you’d’ve been misled into thinking that the most logical way to break the cycle, learn from your mistakes and start building for your own success would be to begin supporting Barcelona or the New England Patriots or the Chinese Olympic team.
The message is that failure is to be lauded only if you’re actively fighting it. To accept and even enjoy it – to cease struggling to eliminate it from your life – is a social scandal, an admission not just of having lost, but of being a loser.
Which might sound reasonable in an abstract consideration of life and ambition, but yet, was it not Edmund Burke who wrote: the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to switch their support to a more successful team?
In sport, more than life generally, we understand defeat – which is perhaps a kinder way of describing what it means to be on the losing side of a contest. We overreact to it, certainly; we let it cloud our thoughts and our judgement. But we don’t despise it and we don’t use it as a shorthand for judging moral worth.
No caption needed.
Neither my football team nor my NFL team have ever been champions of their sport. And nor, in my lifetime, has my national football team won the World Cup. My sporting life has been spent chewing over the remnants of missed opportunities, relegations, late collapses, unequal ties, broken players, spent managers, what-ifs and so-nearlys.
Fans of lower division teams get, I suspect, more from defeats than fans of PSG get from wins, especially now a few big European clubs are working on eliminating the possibility of failure from their business models. More money, bigger stadia, better access to young players, B teams and off-shore player storage are all designed to make winning the league an even more regular experience.
In future Manchester City players, numbed by their own winning record, will live listless lives of endless, meaningless Logan’s Run pleasures, only dimly aware that there will come a point when the goals will dry up and the blue dots on their hands will turn red.
And this in a league where it is more than 50 years since Liverpool finished outside the top half of England’s top division. Their fans have experienced tragedy, but for all their complaints, they have literally never experience failure; only degrees of success.
Our fallen heroes
Perhaps, though, the global spotlight on sport makes the magnitude of the defeat greater than before? We hear it in the approved language of the defeated, which, while acknowledging failure, refuses to engage with it. We’re disappointed with how things went. It’s just one game. We need to put it behind us and get back to doing the right things. We have a game next week to focus on.
Is this a necessary response to how much rests on modern sport – the only way to survive – or a bloodless refusal to look down in case we are overwhelmed by the potential fall?
Some defeats have no lessons, only glory.
Certainly fans seem to have a stronger emotional bond with the players who flirt with failure. Alex Bellos expressed it beautifully in his book on Brazilian football, Futebol. Brazilians, he explained, admire and respect Pelé, but they love Garincha. In place of those two you can readily substitute any number of names: Lineker and Gazza, Borg and McEnroe, Coe and Ovett – the examples go on and on. Extravagant flaws and exuberant talent are far more appealing than supernatural performance and professional perfection. The former speaks of childhood dreams, the latter of adult disappointment.
So, I suggest we must reclaim failure. By all means, let us ensure it’s suffered less dramatically – I’ve seen people have nervous breakdowns at games and be dragged away, literally kicking and screaming; I’ve seen players seemingly haunted by a single error for years, their every interaction with the public shaped by the perception of them as a bottler or an underachiever.
But let us also understand failure’s role and value it better. Let us ensure it’s more widely suffered, too.
Above all, let us restore some parity to sport – and to life – so that no one is immune to failure. For when we experience it, when we see sports people come crashing back to earth, brought down by the weight of our expectations, we experience a profound and life enriching sadness that serves to make our occasional (rather than inevitable) triumphs more spectacular.
That, of course, brings out the difficult truth of sporting defeat: we need proxy losers. Sportsmen and women who will bear the pain for us. Human sacrifices whose suffering exalts us.
Jimmy White and Jim Kelly were crucified for us. Matthew Le Tissier’s already lives in legend. Tommy Burns was a fine manager and a great man. Michael Johnson owes nobody an apology.
They were defeated and we should not shame their memories by pretending that the new snake oil definition of failure has anything to say about their achievements – or about sport generally.
Let us celebrate failure, then, not as minor setback, but failure in its truest, most human sense: failure as a monumental, final and, yes, glorious experience. And, rather than tell the defeated to pick themselves up and try again, let us thank them, not just for their physical effort, but for sacrificing themselves so we can live richly in their defeat.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.
*** I’ve read Worstward Ho and, while I couldn’t tell you what it was about, I’m fairly sure it was no more a celebration of the empowering experience of failure than Waiting for God is a self-help play designed to teach patience.