Failure reminds us that quitting is not always a bad thing. Part of the value of learning to face failure is that doing so permits you to know when to give up. Robert Kurson graduated from Harvard Law School — usually a sign that one is going to be a lawyer. But he quickly realized his law career was a mistake — what he really wanted to do was to write about the Three Stooges. So he quit law and penned The Official Three Stooges Encyclopedia. Which itself might not seem the long kiss of success, except that his second book, Shadow Divers, a tale of deep-sea divers discovering the wreck of a sunken German U-boat, was a huge best seller in 2004 and made him rich.
To create is to fail, if only by deleting pages, discarding drafts and abandoning dead ends that seemed a good idea during the months they took to write. To look at authors is to realize how much failure is a matter of time, and perspective. John Kennedy Toole wrote one of the best and most popular comic novels of the past decades, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces, though he never knew it; he killed himself in despair at age 31, and his mother got his book published posthumously.
We think of F. Scott Fitzgerald as an icon of 20th-century literature. Yet his perspective at the end of his life must have been different: He died at 44, an alcoholic, almost broke and all his books out of print.
Of course, not every failure has a silver lining. Sometimes failure is just failure — the project fizzles, you lose your job, the feds swoop in and you go to prison. But even then, facing unmitigated defeat, how you react — whether you stand up or give up — determines everything. Failure can be an invitation to re-invent yourself. Undone by a corruption scandal, Illinois Gov. George Ryan turned his attention to opposing capital punishment, and suddenly some were saying he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Martha Stewart used her five months in federal prison to do yoga and lose weight, and she emerged to resume her role as America’s domestic goddess.
The idea that a single “F” will keep you out of college and ruin your life is something they use to scare students into doing their homework. The reality is that we all have a string of “F”s on our records, whether we acknowledge them or not, and those failures, just like our successes, add up to form our lives and who we are.
You fail, but you survive. Usually. Sadder, maybe. Smarter, maybe. More adult and more human, certainly. We can cringe in embarrassment at our failures, or wear them proudly as noble scars, as the evidence of struggle that they certainly are. Dante begins his Inferno, famously, in setback and confusion. “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost….” It takes a scary slog through all nine circles of hell, but — not to give away the ending — Dante comes out all right and sees the stars once again./1
Most people do.
brian patrick Cork
/1 See “Failure – Part I” dated February 19, 2007