It’s not surprising that “coronavirus”, “covid-19” and “pandemic” are among the most frequently used words this year, according to the recently released Oxford Language Report 2020. But covid-watchers may have encountered another word just as ubiquitously, be it in real life or on the internet: “resilience”. Throw it into a search engine, along with “covid” for good measure, and you will get what I mean.
Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from a tough situation, is far from being an undesirable quality, especially in this year of mounting losses of lives, health, jobs, dreams and hopes. Received wisdom demands that we keep our chin up, never give up, fight back, and make our disasters count. Failure, generations of school students learn by rote, is a pillar to success. Fail fast and cut your losses is an entrepreneurial motto the world has long come to embrace. It’s the theme that structures our everyday lives too, affecting our personal and professional fortunes, fortifying us against the squalls and gales that assail us; it pushes us to try and try again, until we succeed. Or drop dead—if we end up surrendering ourselves to the punishing standards of the 21st century work ethic.
The relentless race against failure can get tiring, especially when its paeans are sung night and day by a self-help industry that promises to teach us how to fail well. We can’t be allowed to give up because failure must necessarily bear a moral lesson. We must make good of its teachings, make it count. Failure must amount to something bigger, better and brighter—in other words, it must end with success, no matter how long it takes. Motivational speakers and celebrities delivering commencement addresses at graduation ceremonies have made a career out of spouting such spiel. But as writer and actor Lily Tomlin put it, the trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat.
Would 2020—the annus horribilis that took away millions of lives and forced the living to suffer the brush of mortality every day—usher in a shift in our perception of failure, urge us to skip the rat race, and help us embrace the inner loser most of us shudder away from? Propositions like these may sound unpopular, even contrarian, but they are far from new.
A long line of outcasts, misfits, recluses, misanthropes and unsung geniuses have stubbornly resisted the allure of the herd, as British scholar Joe Moran’s new book, If You Should Fail, reminds us. The desperate hunger for success, while seemingly universal, isn’t necessarily what makes us human. It’s rather our sheer inability to accept failure for what it is—an unavoidable aspect of existence we needn’t be ashamed of—that drives the wheels of human civilisation.
Subtitled A Book Of Solace, If You Should Fail is a classic anti (or counter-intuitive) self-help treatise—robustly argued, intellectually sturdy, laced with self-deprecatory humour. “The foundational myth of failure is that it’s our own fault,” Moran declares early on. The seeds of this thesis are sown by the capitalist system, which puts an absurdly high premium on productivity and keeps its beneficiaries in thrall to it, misleading them into believing that the system is fair to all. This illusion of meritocracy promises equal opportunities and success to anyone willing to work hard, and harder still, in spite of setbacks. The reality is starkly opposite, though. In life, rewards are determined by social and economic advantages that give an obvious head-start to a career.
A frightening example of the latter is outlined in a chapter on the tyrannical examination system in imperial China, where people from all walks of life often spent their entire lives and savings striving to pass a test that would appoint them as a bureaucrat with immeasurable power. The Shandong writer Pu Songling (1640-1715), for instance, tried all his life, until his death aged 74, to ace the exams, but failed each time. Every attempt meant a depletion of finances, as he had to travel to the capital to take the exam, apart from the mental agony that left him witless with exhaustion. Pu’s predicament finds resonance to this day among aspirants for the many competitive examinations in India.
In the capitalist world view, failure is the key defining feature of humanity: “An ordinary human life is now a failure until proven otherwise,” Moran writes—but then, “no failure is wholly avoidable and no success will ever be quite enough, because both of them will always be someone else’s opinion”.
Should failure or success matter at all then, since none of us can ever control the outcome of our efforts? As Moran puts it, “sometimes, for no good reason, we just fail.” There is no shame, he says, in believing the grapes hanging out of our reach are sour and moving on—it is a healthy and practical approach—rather than lamenting about what could have been.
It is this spirit of serene but radical acceptance, without the glib triumphalism of new-age self-help, that makes If You Should Fail truly live up to its promise of being A Book Of Solace. Moran doesn’t believe in dispensing false hopes and softening the blow. He is not the mountebank with a microphone stuck to his collar spouting platitudes about the edifying nobility of failure—a wisdom that is always achieved in hindsight, from the vantage point of (usually notable) success. Instead, the examples Moran draws on to establish the ordinariness of failure are uniquely refreshing, because all these “failures” were bereft of the success they deserved in their lifetimes, either due to circumstances or with good reason.
The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, for instance, was never able to shake off her imposter syndrome in spite of her considerable acclaim. But it was her equanimity in the face of disappointment, her refusal to “sand down the world’s rough edges”, that saved her. In contrast, her contemporary, the poet Cesare Pavese, who died by suicide at the age of 41, was unable to attribute his failures to a cause outside himself. Pavese, as Ginzburg noted in an essay, remained, till the end, “the bitter face and voice of reason, presenting infallible arguments to which there is no response, nothing to do but submit”.
The idea of accepting failure is unlikely to gain traction, but there is a case to be made for it for the sake of dimming the oppressive cult of success that is a measure of human life . Moran also writes about the British poet Paul Potts, “the patron saint of failed writers”, who refused to let the censure of contemporaries get in the way of his creative output, and the American Joe Gould, who claimed to be writing the world’s longest book (over nine million words long) but never delivered it. Would these writers have been better off not wasting their time on their literary ambitions? Should they have given up, hung up their hats, and retired?
Not at all. For all its appeal for sense and sobriety, If You Should Fail is far from a discouraging book. On the contrary, it is deeply empathetic to the trials of the creative life. Moran merely cuts through the frills that overlay our lives and the trappings of worldly success that trail along with it. “Certain kinds of optimism are crueller than pessimism,” he writes, “because they ask us to invest in a future that is at best unlikely and at worst a fantasy.” A better booster of immunity against the virus of failure would be hard to come by.