Failure is a taboo subject. Like death, failure might be discussed if it is applicable to someone else, but it is not something people would wish to consider in terms of themselves. To talk about one’s own failure is to invite an embarrassed silence among those listening, or protestations that this is not really the case, despite overwhelming evidence that the failure is tangible.
The controversial British politician Enoch Powell thought failure was the natural order of things, even among those thought the greatest. Powell declared, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” It is hard to imagine politicians fifty years later admit that their careers were destined for a premature end or an ultimate failure.
Given the aversion to discussing the subject, it was odd to hear Radio 4 Extra advertise a programme called A Short History of Failure. Can one encompass failure in a short history? Perhaps the idea that failure can be neatly summarised is a reflection of our tendency to pretend that failure is not the natural order of things.
Human mortality determines the ultimate failure of each of us, but there are plenty of other failures along the way. Work, education, sport, isn’t the corollary of success for a few people the failure of the many? Wouldn’t we be happier if we could accept that failure is the norm? Wouldn’t we be more content if we weren’t encouraged to have unrealistic expectations?
An education system where grades get higher every year does not serve anyone well, but if grades fell as well as rose, as they would in a system that was constant, then there would be vociferous condemnation of the “failure” of the system, instead of a rational acceptance that this is in the nature of the system.
Similarly, the exclusion of competitive activities from children’s education and the pretence that everyone is a “winner” does not convince those at the receiving end who know from an early age what winning and losing mean.
Society would be much healthier, and people under much less pressure if we abandoned our obsession with notions of “success” and said that failure was acceptable; that failure was acceptable because we had tried and we could do no more than that.
In conversation today, a man born during the First World War recounted memories of a neighbour. “He was a terrible farmer. His yard was filthy. He would go to bed in his boots. He was a great man, though.” A failure by all reasonable measures, and remembered with happiness. Sometimes failure itself is a success.