Cover of Little Miss Sunshine [Blu-ray]
"Losing: it’s like winning, but with more experience."
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.
On 5th December 2007 I was on my way to teach a martial arts class, where I encourage tenacity and try to inspire fighting spirit when Radio 4 hosted a superb organized discussion on the subject of failure in their “Off the Page” series. In this programme three authors with backgrounds in pop music, media relations and sport discuss their definitions of failure and how they drew tremendous strength through dealing with failure. Of the three I found Amanda Patel’s the most inspirational. We can empathize with the heroic failings of John Otway. His complete embracing of what he sees as his shortcomings are the cornerstone of British storytelling perhaps going back to our cultural roots. If you think about it King Arthur makes some devastating mistakes and some our greatest literary heroes are flawed. And when the epic Old English poem Beowulf was brought to the big screen the writers felt they had to make its one dimensional hero have a fatal internal weakness that negates his bravery. The sports correspondent Jim Wright brings out the debate on whether being competitive is necessary. Despite all three of the authors being very conscious of how they had failed all agreed that competition was still a good thing and how much can be learnt through failure. Amanda Patel was so inspirational because her perceived failings took on so many different forms, including the grossly unfair assumption that if a woman can’t have a baby she is somehow a failure, yet, as she announces in her written introduction, many see her as a success. A chord that Amanda Patel touches upon is that you will probably fail far more than you succeed. I guess that is why personal success does taste so sweet.
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.
Nevertheless failure is really a unique personal perception and if we have a proper look around we see that the UK is not the only country that addresses it with such importance. In Dublin we find the brilliant book and its wonderful film adaptation, “The Commitments”, which deals with the poetry of failure. There is a fantastically real quality to this comedy-drama that is about the formation of the first Irish soul band. Having seen what happens with compromise and conflicting personalities only too often when one pursues a vision in showbusiness the band’s manager, Jimmy Rabbitte, has my every sympathy. However, when the dust clears of â€œwhat could have been we see that the whole experience of forming the band and almost achieving stardom was certainly not a wasted effort. This is even more evident in the book than in the film.
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.
Failure can also be unhealthily fixated upon. I am the first to stick up for “Bad” films and one of my favourite feature films is a touching tribute to the life of the man who has been regularly voted the “Worst director of all time”, Tim Burton’s biopic, “Ed Wood”, but this does not mean we should fall into Billy Connolly’s aptly described condition: “Lust for failure” There is even a society that celebrates failure, which I think would appeal to John Ottway’s humour and sensibilities. Established in 1976, Stephen Pile started the “Not Terribly Good Club”, where members happily demonstrate things they are not very good at doing. He wrote a book, “The Book of Heroic Failures”, which actually contains some amazing success stories. Tommy Cooper, for example, is credited as one of the funniest comedians in history and was known to be a very competent magician. However, it was his “Failings” as a magician that made him famous. There is even the story of someone from my culture, circus, a trapeze artiste, Tito Gaona, who failed to perform the quadruple somersault. Let’s remember that the tripple somersault is still an outstanding feat, brought to legendary status in the film “Trapeze”, and only the top acts that compete in Monte Carlo are expected to pull it off – there are plenty who don’t. The artiste in this instance was trying to break new ground and it is arguable that his mistakes helped educate those who would go on achieve this feat. Few look back and call Leonardo Da Vinci a failure for his work on mechanisms he would not see become a reality in his lifetime. Those who can’t are all too easily dismissive of the shortfalls of those who can.
We can enjoy our fictional “Loveable losers” like Charlie Brown and David Brent, who help us look at the absurdity of being delusional or the sometimes fruitless social desire to be adored by others, but I don’t think it is particularly fulfilling to label you a loser any more than it is artificially elevate yourself as a winner. Losing provides us with lessons on our life journey whereas winning, as enjoyable as it is, marks our milestones in the right direction. Rudyard Kipling’s over-quoted poem – which is probably so popular because it lays down the philosophy of the ideal Bulldog Briton in the eyes of his countrymen has perhaps the best line regarding how we best handle the issue of success and failure. All together now “Treat those two impostors just the same”.