Below is an article I wrote back in 2007 long before I started making a deeper study into the nature of failure and mistakes. That particular journey moved me more into scepticism and critical thinking, as well as a willingness to embrace the benefits of accepting personal errors. Since writing this piece I read the brilliant "Mistakes were Made (but not by me)" by Carol Tavris and the equally entertaining "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error" by Katherine Schulz.
I have never been a natural and have always had a passion for teaching. I think the disadvantages you face in not learning things easily enrich your ability to teach. It often amuses me when I hear people who put themselves over as great teachers and yet seem to have an inability to admit being flawed in anyway. They often won't even admit to making mistakes in the past. Such people seem to take on a religious view of their teaching ability, emulating some sort of Christ figure who is perfect in every way and revered by his discipiles as being the greatest of teachers. Personally I take the rather more mortal outlook that comes from works like Stephen Briers "Superpowers for Parents" and the aforementioned works by Tavris and Schulz that a teacher who shows they are faillible and even exhibits his mistakes and flaws is much more effective than those who easily gained skills or refuse to admit being wrong.
The Lust for Failure
For some reason the topic of failing is popular yet again and is clearly in the public consciousness. I am not a football fan, but I am sure a certain incident happening this year (2007 to those of you reading this in the archive section) might have something to do with this sudden interest in addressing losing. Nevertheless just as the USA seem to define everything by success - as best exemplified by the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi - “Winning is not a sometime thing, it’s an all-time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing” - so the British become very philosophical about failure.
It was during his 1997 “Two Night Stand” concert that the comedian, Billy Connolly brilliantly suggested the idea of institutionalized losing on a national level when he addressed an audience of his fellow Glaswegians. He put forward the idea that Scotland could host the Olympics, which was met by a titter from the audience. He responded with: “Do you hear that? Do you what that is? Do you know what f*ing that is? That’s a ‘Lust for failure’. He went on to explain how through listening to the negative “s*tty press” and letting the rest of society tell them that they were useless and rubbish that they believed it all now. Yet, he went on; there is no real reason why Glasgow, despite being a city associated with poverty and the knife murder capital of Europe, could not be able to achieve sporting success. I highly recommend listening or watching this great concert for a very funny but honest insight into the reasons why we can collectively let others think we cannot achieve the goals that we want. Incidentally ten years after Connolly made his outrageous predictions, Glasgow has won the bid to host the 2014 World Games.
Meanwhile, over the Atlantic ocean, Stephen King’s uniquely structured book (not the film, sadly), “Hearts in Atlantis”, is a fascinating reaction to the expectations of the “Baby Boomer” generation and, for me, it showed just why my post-Baby Boomer, “Generation X” has been seen to be so cynical and sceptical about everything. Despite the disappointments experienced by the characters, however, I couldn’t help but draw a lot of warmth from the book. It does feature minor victories that make the world of difference to the heroes and their failures just seem to be human, if you will forgive the cliché. Best of all there is the glimmer of hope at the end, perhaps the most inspiring thing I drew from the ancient fable/myth of “Pandora’s Box”.
Recently I saw the American comedy-drama film “Little Miss Sunshine”, which also deals with cosmetic failure in all the main characters. The actual victories in the film, which are not that clear-cut, are made all the more poignant and important by the contrast with the superficial victories the main protagonists fail to achieve. The film dealt with self-expectation, but also with the expectations of others - or more specifically - what society expected of us. I won’t go into any more detail than that, but what did intrigue me was that three teenagers who had seen it before my wife and me all gave it mediocre to bad reviews. “What was the point?” one grumbled. We put it on in duress - well, we hired it, we might as well watch it - and both were pleasantly surprised. It concerned me that all three of our previous critics had not seen the points that seemed so glaringly obvious to us - points that were ultimately positive and uplifting and had nothing to do with what anyone else thought. For superficial perceptions of success to be so strong that three otherwise intelligent and deep-thinking adolescents to miss this unsubtle point was a little worrying.
There is an excellent ancient fable that warns us of the problems in seeking adulation from others. In the fable the winged messenger of the gods, Hermes (or Mercury in Roman mythology), disguises himself as a mortal and enters a shop that sells statuettes. To begin with he asks the price for two other gods represented in carved stone. He is given very high rates. Then he finds a statuette of himself and, with a smug grin on his face, asks how much it will cost for this particular figurine. The shopkeeper says dismissively “Oh him! Hermes isn’t in very high demand. I tell you what if you buy the other two I’ll throw him in for free!”
In November “Gracie Magazine”, a magazine published for Brazilian Jiu Jitsuka and those on the Submission Grappling circuit, made its front cover “Why do you fail?” Rather than directly answering the question the article spent a lot of time explaining how much losing can actually strengthen an individual. Amanda Patel re-examined the quote attributed both to Goethe and Nietzsche “What does not kill me makes me stronger”, arguing that maybe it didn’t, but just gives you another chance. The Gracie article explained that when several times world grappling champion, both with and without the gi, Roger Gracie was asked what made him a success he replied “Tapping out”. What he meant was that it was only through losing did he truly appreciate the mistakes he was making and good progress forward. As time goes on my belief on the issue is becoming much more basic. Success is great, but to many it is an unhealthy addiction that sets them on a high only to send them down lower than before. Like other addictions certain fundamental principles are sacrificed and eventually you have to pay these losses. We all need our goals and there is nothing more inspiring than enthusiasm and a hard work ethic, however, these are more rules of life rather than a series of ill-fitting techniques forced into our existence.
As the “Little Miss Sunshine” example so succinctly demonstrated, a lot of the unnecessary pressure connected to achieving success comes down to what others think of us. I know so many true stories, mine included, where people become successful at something in order to prove others wrong. Although this type of “I’ll show them” attitude can be a great inspiration, very often those you seek to impress will not meet you with the exact reaction you have envisioned. My good friend, Malcolm Martin, was responsible for getting me on the front cover a martial arts magazine I had been collecting since before I had even stepped into a gym. He warned me, however, as I proudly looked at the eight page feature that prefaced all the other stories “Enjoy it because the novelty soon wears off”. These were wise words. A few people gave me the pat on the back I was expecting, but it wasn’t long before I found myself running around with copies of the magazine desperate to show off to people who could not shake off the image they had always had of me. Malcolm was right, the novelty did wear off, as it has always worn off what remained important was that I was happy doing what I was doing.
This can be difficult as the business I love involves showing off and constantly pushing yourself, but there has to be acceptance that you can’t change everyone’s view of you, and the humility that failure brings not only improve you but also teaches you not take yourself too seriously. Speaking of which, I like to cite the autobiography of possibly the fastest wit in showbusiness history, Groucho Marx. In “Groucho and Me” the author explained how a former school classmate of his periodically visited him at his live performances. On each occasion the former classmate explained to Groucho how well he was doing in his sensible job and pleaded with the comedian to leave his “Funny business”. Each time the ex-classmate proudly stated his improving salary and each time Groucho said nothing - he hadn’t the heart to tell his “Prosperous” friend the huge wage earnings he was amassing with his brothers’ act. Eventually the classmate gave up just as Groucho made his big move into the film industry and made comedy and showbusiness history. Yet it is my guess that the friend, to his dying day, probably never acknowledged his friend's success.
My review of "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)"
My review of "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error"
My review of "Superpowers for Parents"
My article on Groucho Marx
Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog www.jamieclubb.blogspot.com