Saturday, 12 April 2014

Fail better

Why do ‘high achievers’ (not a phrase I care for) so often feel like failures? ‘We share our lives with the people we have failed to be,’ writes Adam Phillips in his book Missing Out. ‘Once the next life - the better life, the fuller life - has to be in this one we have a considerable task on our hands. Now someone is asking us not only to survive but to flourish, not simply or solely to be good but to make the most of our lives … Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life - the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life - the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legimated by nothing more than the desire to live it.’

In the modern university, as in most market-led public services, failure is no longer considered an option. Everything must be satisficing, which means that much is mediocre - neither a ruinous failure nor a spectacular success. Google, by contrast, has a sub-division, Google [x], which it describes as a ‘moonshot factory’, where its engineers collaborate on audacious ideas. Its head is reported on the BBC news website as saying: ‘You must reward people for failing … If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation’s spirit.’

I would love to set up a moonshot factory in a modern university that rewarded failure. For surely any creative activity worth doing contains within it the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of failure. Most conversations, at least the ones I seem to be involved with, are failed attempts at communication. Teaching is mostly about failure, because it is based on conversation and words are always liable to fall on stony ground. Reading is about failure, because most of what we read we forget, and quite a lot of it is not as interesting as we thought it would be. Writing is about failure because, even if we manage to finish something and send it out into the world, we will mostly come up against a wall of indifference made of people who have other things on their mind and other things to read and write. ‘Any kind of effort to make linkage via signs is a gamble,’ writes the philosopher John Durham Peters in his book Speaking into the Air. ‘To the question, How can we really know we have communicated? there is no ultimate answer besides a pragmatic one that our subsequent actions seem to act in some kind of concert.’  In other words, you just keep throwing enough mud at the wall until some of it sticks. Maybe you only have to succeed once, or at least to fail less catastrophically. As Samuel Beckett put it in Worstward Ho: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If your daily life seems poor do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.’ - Rainer Maria Rilke

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