A Brief History of Failure
Failure is a modern invention. True, Coronado failed to find the Seven Cities of Gold, and Raleigh failed to plant a permanent colony at Roanoke. History is filled with tales of failed endeavors. But using “failure” to describe individuals—feeling like a failure, or sorting people into the successes and the failures—didn’t start till well into the nineteenth century, according to Scott A. Sandage, historian and author of Born Losers.
Attaching “failure” to personal identity, with all its moral connotations, emerged from the extension of business models to people and the invention of credit ratings. The first human “failures” were reckless speculators whose overambition led to bankruptcy. Today they’re underachievers who lack ambition. Born losers.
I’ve heard friends insist they have no failures, only learning experiences, or redefine success to mean leading a worthwhile life instead of achieving riches or fame. My preference is to strip the terms of moral judgment and apply them to outcomes, not people. Success and failure are results we have, not who we are. If we ever take risks or try anything new, we’ll succeed in some and fail in others. There’s no shame in failure. The only way to have a shot at avoiding it is never to try.
6/5/2017 10:27:31 am
Sarah, you would make a happy knitter.
6/5/2017 07:01:56 pm
Or a happy quilter. The only way to see whether something will "work" is to start cutting and sewing. Seldom would I label a quilt top a "failure". More likely, it would be "not a favorite".
6/5/2017 08:01:15 pm
"LIKE!" And you'd certainly never label yourself a failure for having created something which is "not a favorite."
Yes, the only way to find out is to start. Planning has its place but waiting till we think we know exactly how something will come out makes for paralysis. I must try to remember "not a favorite" next time I try a new recipe and it comes out a soggy inedible mess! Lovely phrase.
6/6/2017 01:47:37 pm
There's a difference between BEING a failure, CREATING a failure, and creating something CREATED from a failure (a knitting pattern or recipe which was so poorly written as to have precluded any chance of finishing something that was even as good as "not a favorite").
Fair enough. I have also tried things that failed that I can't blame on anyone else. Like getting a particular flower established in a particular garden bed of my former house. Failed, didn't make me a failure. People aren't failures, period. But then I'm a Universalist.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.