Failure is not an option – it is essential

Would Scott have been more famous if he had succeeded in reaching the South Pole first? In the UK Scott is more remembered than Amundsen. Shackleton, similarly enshrined, didn’t do too well either with his ship the Endurance sinking at the first ice flow. His failure to cross the southern continent was actually trumped by his success; to preserve the life of his men.

Who remembers the winner of the ski jump competition at the Calgary Olympics in 1988? We all know who came last. The competition that year entertained both the greatest ever winner Matt Nykanen from Finland who won three golds in the competition and the greatest ever loser Eddie the Eagle. And it was Eddie who was feted with a private jet and chat show celebrity status. By all accounts Eddie was both brave (with serious short sightedness and bottle-bottom glasses that steamed up so badly he couldn’t see. Every jump could have been his last – that took guts) and humble; an all-round good bloke, a plasterer from Stroud who held both the British ski jumping and stunt jumping records and was 9th in the world rankings of amateur speed skating (106 mph). Getting to the Olympics had been an overwhelming success and his failure was just success in disguise and the spirit is summed up by this reference from Wikipedia: At the closing ceremony the president of the Games singled him out for his contribution: “At this Games some competitors have won gold, some have broken records and one has even flown like an eagle.” At that moment, 100,000 people in the stadium roared “Eddie! Eddie!”. It was the first time in the history of the Games that an individual athlete had been mentioned in the closing speech.

Which Apollo mission became a movie? Was it the Apollo 11 successful lunar landing? Nope it was the Apollo 13 mission that failed that made it to celluloid celebration. Apollo 13’s success was not landing on the moon it was getting the astronauts back to earth all in one piece.

If we suffer a failure, we can find a success within it if we redefine our terms of reference. Don’t indulge in failure, failure is not defeat because in every failure there is a success. We just have to find it. It is a rule. Take heart. Look at your failures afresh and revaluate them for their success. The thing about failure is it means you had a go, you tried and to paraphrase the well-known saying “…it is better to have tried and failed, than never to have tried at all”.

If you are going to fail, fail spectacularly! Avoid the wishy-washy, half-baked failure – an anonymous failure has no value whatsoever. This is the kind of failure we fear, and it is this fear we project to make the glorious failure enshrined by a few into an outstanding success.

No. A great failure needs PR, a well marketed failure made visible becomes part of our urban myth and is celebrated. To be a successful failure get yourself a big stage and fall off it! Climb to the heights and as Buzz Lightyear said if you can’t fly “… fall with style!”

As we project our desires on others’ success we project our anxieties on others’ failures. Celebrity adorns outstanding failure just as it kisses success. There is a small but significant caveat, a warning to those who are in pursuit of failure’s success; the celebrity of failure is enhanced by death. Colin Campbell’s failed water speed record in Bluebird was both sublime and fatal. It pays to try and not be a dead failure and miss out on failure’s rewards.

Vincent van Gogh was singularly the most unsuccessful artist of his generation and the van Gogh Museum is in effect a temple to failure. Before failing as an artist Vincent had already failed as art dealer, school teacher and missionary, and most significantly in relationships. Vincent couldn’t be anything. His self-doubt drove him on. In Vincent’s own words in a letter to his brother Theo “I hope that the products of failure may be success.”

Visitors to the museum indulge and gorge on the painter’s failure a feeding frenzy of often misguided exaltation, not of the man’s work but his profound inadequacy which at some subliminal level touches their own so they can shudder and move on thankful that their failure is not as absolute as his. And yet they miss the point – their fear of failure is really just their fear of success.

Unlike his contemporaries; Cezanne, Matisse, Gauguin et al, Vincent was un-painterly and challenged every artistic convention – it wasn’t likeness or even impression, it was expression – which made his work profoundly unattractive to potential buyers and in his life he only ever sold one painting. Paradoxically it is this commercial failure that has made his catalogue one of the most complete and the museum is stuffed with his work.

As mentioned before, don’t be a dead failure. The sad part of the Vincent story is that the profound depth of his failure in life is balanced by the profound recognition his work has achieved in death. In 1987, one hundred years after it was painted Irises was sold to Alan Bond for $60 million.

To fail isn’t an option, it is essential. Success is always built in, we just have to find it and wait for it.

If you’d like to re-evaluate any of your potential current failures to unearth an opportunity for success, email the team at