How Failure Became A Cultural Fetish

Alex Holder
·8-min read
Photo credit: Tessa Forrest
Photo credit: Tessa Forrest

From ELLE

Several years ago, I worked for a successful ad agency in London. The business was housed in an insouciant office – the kind only seen in the capital’s East End – and made millions each year by creating memorable advertising campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands. In the advertising world, we were the pinnacle of success. And yet, in the foyer hung a sign that read: FAIL HARDER.

It was a mission statement that the company championed, a counterintuitive way for its workers to look at the climb to the top. Something about it always made me feel uneasy. After all, this wasn’t an industry that venerated failure. As a 27-year-old trying to pull my life together to resemble that of a successful adult, I knew that if I screwed up on a job, I’d most likely be shown the door.

The company, I came to realise, was not alone in its fetishisation of something the rest of us have spent a lifetime being told to avoid.

In Silicon Valley, failure is almost a religion, a necessary rite of passage on the path to world-changing innovation. Risks and f*ck-ups? They’re all part of the formula for those wanting to make a dent in the universe. As Tesla’s founder Elon Musk said: ‘If things are not failing, you are not innovating.’

Astro Teller, head of Google X (now just called ‘X’), explains how his company goes one step further, handing out failure bonuses to employees who admit that a project isn’t taking off (remember Google Glass?). The thinking is that it’s actually cheaper to move on from doomed projects, rather than let them suck up resources.

Photo credit: A.J. Rich - Getty Images
Photo credit: A.J. Rich - Getty Images

Hell, failure can even be considered fun, with Teller’s company throwing ‘failure parties’ when a team ditch a project that isn’t going anywhere. Ironically, Teller’s TED Talk, ‘The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure’, has been anything but a flop – it’s been viewed more than 2.5 million times.

In fact, one of failure’s biggest advocates is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who famously hires those who have failed first. The team that launched Amazon Fresh, its grocery delivery service? It’s led by two former executives of Webvan, the online grocery service that, despite millions of dollars in funding, never made it past the dot-com boom. Bezos is so obsessed with failure, that in every one of his past eight shareholder letters, he’s celebrated the ‘F’ word, with the most recent calling for the occasional ‘multibillion-dollar failure’.

‘If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle,’ he wrote.

It was only a matter of time then, before the endorsement of failure trickled down from Silicon Valley and into our everyday lives. Look around and you’ll see that failure is being championed as much as success. From Elizabeth Day’s chart-topping podcast How To Fail – in which she interviews everyone from Lily Allen about bombing out to Phoebe Waller-Bridge – to influencers bearing their failure-ridden souls across Instagram.

The benefits of seeing failure as an experience to learn from are obvious: after all, we don’t want the bad bits of our lives defining us forever. But is the current failure obsession all positive?

I can’t help but notice that those with a platform to voice their failures are generally rich, famous, bestselling or chart-topping, and it begs the question: is failing a privilege that not everyone can afford?

‘For me, failure is not an option. I pay for my own existence. I don’t have a rich husband or rich parents to rely on if my business fails,’ says Sharmadean Reid MBE, one of the UK’s most successful young entrepreneurs. She founded WAH Nails in 2009 and launched startup Beautystack in 2017.

‘I can’t put myself in an unsafe environment,’ she says. ‘I have a son and I’ve got nothing to fall back on.’

This is the unspoken factor in today’s celebration of failure: it simply isn’t something that everyone can bounce back from, yet it’s often presented that way. I ask Sharmadean if she’s ever been to a failure party?

‘No!’ she laughs. ‘I don’t engage with failure culture at all.’

While Jeff Bezos peddles extreme failure, he’s also the richest man in the world. He has the privilege to fail a thousand times and it not truly affect him. No failure (not even his $38 billion divorce) is going to leave him destitute.

‘It is much easier to fail if you’re a male Stanford graduate, than if you’re a young woman,’ says Susan MacTavish Best, CEO of lifestyle business Living MacTavish, who hosts salon-style parties with the Silicon Valley set. This – privilege – is the unspoken underbelly of culture’s current obsession with failure: not everyone has the security to withstand failing.

‘One negative by-product of the fetishisation of failure is that, for every person who evangelises their failures, there will be 10 who crash and burn and we never hear from again,’ says Jessica Butcher, co-founder of social video platform Tick.

‘In the entrepreneurial community around me, I’ve witnessed the mental-health ramifications of failing – people have identity crises, they reach true burnout. Not everyone rises from the ashes.’

The flaw with the current celebration of failure is that there’s no room for discussing it in real time; the humiliating kind that you haven’t yet reinvented with a positive spin isn’t palatable.

In 2010, Dr Melanie Stefan suggested that people keep an alternative CV of their failures. She’s now a lecturer in biomedical sciences at The University of Edinburgh but, at the time, she was in the midst of rejection after rejection for a university fellowship: ‘The irony was, I didn’t feel secure enough in my career to publish my own failure CV.’

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images

A few years later, Johannes Haushofer, a professor of psychology at Princeton, published a ‘CV of Failures’ that detailed every degree programme that rejected him and all the research funding he didn’t get. It went viral as people lapped up the counterintuitive idea of celebrating failure. Dr Stefan was pleased he’d been brave enough to publish it.

‘But, as a professor at Princeton, he is evidently not a failure,’ she says. Dr Stefan has since shared her own failure CV but admits she waited for the right moment to go public: ‘The timing is important. I now have a permanent faculty position, so very little can happen to me.’

It begs the question: if we only consider failure in the context of success, has sharing our failures become the ultimate humblebrag?

It seems the current conversation around failure is littered with what Dr Stefan refers to as ‘survival bias’: the error of only concentrating on things that have made it past a selection process and ignoring those that haven’t, which means we’re only hearing the failures of successful people.

Even Elizabeth Day admitted that on one series of How To Fail, every guest was an Oxbridge graduate. I’m guilty of this, too: I once wrote a piece about my career failing, but only after getting another job in a different industry. I talk a lot about the time I was struggling with debt, but only now I’ve paid it all off.

There’s another reason I now talk about my failures: they make me more likeable.

We’re seeing people knock themselves down from their own pedestals. Triumph over adversity is the basis of all storytelling; no one wants to see the rise and rise of someone who was pretty successful to start with.

Perhaps identifying as a failure is a way for those at the top to feel better about their privileged position. Now, to be privileged is to be contentious; it’s become a dirty word. It’s much easier to warm to someone who has failed. Fallibility and vulnerability are likeable qualities that allow us to connect on a much deeper level. No wonder people are deploying them.

New Meanings: The words that have been co-opted by popular culture

  • Authenticity

A key tenant of existential philosophy. Now likely to be accompanied by a hashtag and a picture of someone with toilet roll stuck to their shoe.

  • The sisterhood

Originally second-wave feminism’s crucial pillar and campaigning phrase. Now found on mugs and notelets in card shops.

  • Empowerment

When Protein World (of ‘Beach Body Ready’ fame) is using it to sell weight-loss powder, you know it’s lost its muscle.

  • Self-care

Once about the need to take care of mental and physical health, now about getting into debt at Whole Foods.

  • Woke

Central to the Black Lives Matter movement, the word is now used to flog everything from hummus to eye drops.

  • Diversity

Used to be about greater representation. Now a buzzword flung about by corporate idiots in suits. (Even Oprah Winfrey won’t use it.)

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of ELLE UK.

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