Dear Highly Successful People: Stop Talking About Your Failures

Failure is a luxury.

Image: yevkusa

I was warned to beware my thirties. I was told that this is when everything I took for granted as functioning well would begin to stop. Over a year ago, I mis-aimed a jump over a puddle and rolled my ankle, and it still clicks when I walk. It’s not that when I turned thirty things suddenly started breaking down, it’s that recovering from falls now takes longer, if it ever happens at all. The moment you realize that recovery is no longer a guarantee is scary as hell. But as disheartening as this realization is, failing to recover from injury is not nearly as harrowing as the prospect of failing to recover from failure.

Recently a colleague forwarded me an article in the Washington Post about Johannes Haushofer, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton who wanted to add a shade of realism to the picture of his promising career. So he decided to post his own “CV of failures.” It includes all the jobs he didn’t get, all the articles that were rejected, as well as a hilarious nod to the “meta-failure” that crowns this masterwork: “This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.”

It also received its fair share of attention from my coworkers, all of whom are academics at the beginning of their careers. Their responses were unanimous: “Shit. This guy’s failure CV is more impressive than my real CV.” For a young scholar, reading a CV of failures by a faculty member at an Ivy League institution must be what it’s like for an off-Broadway actor to read about Leonardo DiCaprio’s unsuccessful auditions. As one friend put it, “He can publish that cause he’s at Princeton.”

It was just as I was entering my thirties and simultaneously beginning my life as a professional, a husband, and a father, racked with stress to find a job and support my family, that I started to notice successful people talking about failure. And boy, did I resent them for it. The most prominent example in recent years is probably Conan O’Brien’s 2011 Dartmouth commencement speech. It is a beautiful work of prose that ends with an account of how O’Brien dealt with the disappointment of almost getting to host “The Tonight Show.” And of how failing to achieve his lifelong dream liberated him from the requirements of success: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique,” says O’Brien. “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.”

When I first heard O’Brien’s speech, I resented it for the obvious reasons. Re-invention sounds lovely when you’ve already achieved a level of success that most people only dream of, less so when you’re trying to begin a career. It wasn’t that O’Brien’s optimism sounded hollow, but that it sounded a lot like an outdated version of my own. As a college student, I focused less on grades than on self-discovery. As a professor, I gravitate to students who do the same. And I tell my undergraduates not to be afraid to take risks, because no matter how well you think you’ve prepared, adulthood will find its nefarious way of surprising you — and this is the best thing about it.

In 1982, Joyce Carol Oates published an article in The Hudson Review that examines the role failure will play in the lives of highly creative people. “The artist,” she says, “perhaps more than most people, inhabits failure.” Nothing is more demoralizing than scanning the work you struggled to create and realizing that you would have done better to keep quiet. Anything that’s ever any good only got that way if its maker realized what was once so bad about it. As Hemingway so delicately put it: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

But Oates has more worldly things to discuss than the value of revising. Her thesis is not just that great works of art begin as failures, but that great works of art are oftentimes created because artists begin as failures. She cites Henry James’s unsuccessful attempts at dramaturgy, William Faulkner’s inadequacies as a poet, all of which eventually spurred them to create masterpieces of American fiction. James Joyce began as both a mediocre poet — see his collection Chamber Music — and a pedestrian novelist. If his earliest attempt at a bildungsroman, Stephen Hero, had proven successful, Oates argues, he never would have taken its themes and rewritten them into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is undoubtedly one of the great works of English prose. Oates is asking the same question Conan O’Brien’s speech is declaring:

“Is there, perhaps, a very literal advantage, now and then, to failure? — a way of turning even the most melancholy of experiences inside-out, until they resemble experiences of value, of growth, of profound significance.”

Yes. There is. But let’s not pretend that failing to achieve success in a career is the same thing as failing to make a masterpiece. Revising takes time and time costs money. “Whether you fear it or not,” O’Brien concludes, “disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.” True. But it’s success that grants you the money and the time necessary to gain the clarity and conviction to achieve that originality. As much as failure can lead us to wrangle and raze our mediocrities, failure can also force us to settle down into them. The clarity and conviction that comes with self-improvement happens on unpaid time. Only the lucky few who can afford these trials, or who are willing to make sacrifices for their wageless labor, can justify devoting so much effort to themselves.

Joyce’s unpopularity “protected” him, writes Oates. When I read this in my twenties, I found Oates’s argument inspirational. Today, I can’t help but think of Joyce’s wife Nora, as well as their two children who grew up in poverty because their father’s writing never paid the bills. It is all very heroic, this portrait of the artist laboring in penury, but the picture loses its glamor when you glance in the direction of the people affected by the artist’s dedication to his own originality.

Oates says a lot about authors whose careers might have been mediocre had they achieved success early on. But she doesn’t mention those writers whose triumphs granted them the time and money to spend their workdays focused on their careers. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a star early on and a flop later. His two greatest works, The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, appeared at the latter end of his writing life. They were such commercial failures that Fitzgerald wasted out his remaining days scrounging for screenwriting work in Hollywood.

However, it is doubtful that Fitzgerald would have had even these opportunities had his first novel not established his name. Had This Side of Paradise not done as well as it did, Fitzgerald would not have earned the kind of money he did over his career, and he might never have found the wherewithal to dedicate himself to his two later masterpieces. He might not have even married the woman who provided so much fodder for his work — after all, his first novel was written in part to convince a glamorous young socialite named Zelda Sayre that its author was successful enough to be considered marriage material. Who knows what fate might have awaited Fitzgerald had he been blessed early on with the freedom of failure. Perhaps America would have an even greater Gatsby. Or maybe just another advertising executive’s unwritten autobiography.

Failure is a luxury. It’s a luxury that some are born with and get to keep, while others never get to experience. It’s the luxury that many of us enjoy when we’re young, but learn that we’ve lost as the encroaching exigencies of adulthood take over. Anyone who is past a certain age and remains steadfast in their attempt to break into a cutthroat industry understands this. Anyone who has ever worked as a waiter in L.A. or New York knows this. What’s scarier than learning that the fifty-year-old server you work with was once a valedictorian at Duke, or a finalist for a film with De Niro? Sure, failure can keep you immured from a public’s expectations, allowing you to grow into maturity. But sometimes what you need to succeed isn’t more anonymity but a few more years of freedom from the responsibilities that come with maturity. There comes a time when, for whatever reason, you literally cannot afford to devote any more time to yourself. And this is the moment when one’s failures threaten to define themselves into one’s life as failure itself.

It feels so otherworldly then, to hear these successful people go on about the value of failure. All these Casanovas lamenting their loneliness — Could their realities really be the same as mine? In the same way I wonder: Can this person in his thirties really be the same guy who was so optimistic in his twenties? This is not to discount the struggles that even the successful undergo. Nor is it to discount how much I myself have learned from my own failures. But learning from your misfortunes is not the same thing as benefiting from them.

As much as any mature adult understands that even the most fêted have experienced disappointment, disappointments don’t count as failures. Once you’ve achieved a certain degree of success, I’m sorry, but those past failures no longer qualify. “The spectre of failure haunts us less than the spectre of failing,” writes Oates. I could not disagree more. I am not scared of failing and continuing to fail. I am scared of not having any more chances to fail.

Failure is only ever positive after you’ve achieved the kind of success that miraculously grants it the veneer of self-improvement. Whereas if you’ve reached your forties and you’re not being hailed as a genius, or being asked to deliver commencement speeches at important universities, or working at an important university, then you are probably wise enough to understand the truth no one tells people on graduation day — failure only counts as progress if you can afford the luxury of not having to look ahead.

A supposedly highly successful man once said: “I don’t like losers.” Of course not. No one does. After all, losers are losers for a reason. And the worst thing about them? They remind us of the truth we forget when we feel like we’re winning: All our triumphs, especially the ones we worked the hardest for, are very much based on inheritance.

“Most of what I try fails,” writes Professor Haushofer in his introduction to his parvum opus, “but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible.” As a result, he says, people “are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic.”

In probability theory, that which is stochastic may be analyzed but not necessarily predicted. The word entered into English in the seventeenth century from the Greek stokhazesthai ‘aim at, guess,’ from stokhos ‘aim.’

Which is exactly what I tell people when they ask me how I hurt my ankle that one night way back when: I aimed wrong, that’s all. There was no way to predict in which direction the ground would be moving.

James Nikopoulos teaches literature at Nazarbayev University.