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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.