Sunday, February 26, 2012

We don't celebrate failure enough

I saw a cartoon recently in The Press drawn by Tony Lopes under his "Insanity Streak" brand. I would have loved to reproduce the cartoon here for your amusement, but the technology of copying/scanning it into the blog defeated me. I failed which may be ironic because the subject of the cartoon was failure.

In the cartoon a group of mourners are sobbing in a church gathered around a coffin which is in two distinct pieces. One of the halves of the coffin has two feet poking out of it. The priest is saying: "Here we lay to rest Gaetano, the not so great illusionist."

Although we can speculate that the mourners would rather have their friend, Gaetano, alive, they are effectively gathered in the church to celebrate his failure.

Decades of The Great American Dream have been sold to us through the predominance of American culture exported globally. Speakers like Tony Robinson have amassed fortunes selling their secrets for success to the keening masses. Success and the quest for success have been inculcated in the philosophy of Western civilisation. Other cultures may have their own takes on success or they have grafted the Western vision on to their own.

When the London Olympics were being held, I  saw an American-produced current affairs piece on how China grooms potentially gifted children into elite Olympic athletes in special schools set up for the purpose. They start very young and they do their normal schooling and after school they train for hours every day. When so-called "regular" Chinese children are enjoying school holidays, these children are spending every single day of these holidays training. Competitive fear is bred into them. Little Yang must train harder than Little Zhang so he/she will be selected for glory. I was filled with a sense of sadness for these children.

In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: the Story of Success, he outlines his now-famous theory that in order to succeed in a specific field, a person needs to do at least 10,000 hours practice. Now, I am not denigrating success or the quest for success, but when I saw those Chinese children in the current affairs story, I was struck by how the authorities were stealing something from them they could never replace: their childhoods. No goofing off, no playing with friends, no fishing for eels, building forts or playing games like hide-and-seek. Joe Jackson drove his son, Michael, like this from an early age and although he became a superstar and was a phenomenal creative force, it is well-documented what price Michael paid. He became a Peter Pan, reclusive, and, perhaps, behaved inappropriately around children. It's only conjecture, but if Michael Jackson had grown up with an ordinary childhood, I think he'd still be alive today.

The famous inventor, Thomas Edison, was once asked if he had been frustrated by his roughly one thousand attempts to perfect the light bulb. "No," he replied, "I just regarded them as one thousand ways not to make a light bulb." Edison wasn't concerned that he had FAILED one thousand times in his journey to eventual success.

But we don't celebrate failure. We cast it into the darkness, shining the spotlight only on success. We celebrate an endpoint while ignoring the journey.

I'm not the first person to say this nor will I likely be the last, but don't concentrate solely on your successes. If you do, your past will be like a moth-eaten rug with small fragments of material strung together with holes. Many successful people have spoken of how they learned so much more from failure than success.

If you try and fail, the failure isn't extricably wedded to your character or personality. You are not a failure, you just experienced failure and , if you are to have a rich and fulfilling life, you will experience (and maybe even celebrate) failure many more times.

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