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Winning isn't everything. Nor is failing

In a culture that promotes endless productivity and toxic positivity, we’ve forgotten an important lesson – we can’t win them all, and that’s OK.

In a modern world where productivity has been praised to the point of creating tools to upgrade our bodies and minds, as suggested by 'biohacking' gurus, we’ve become socially programmed to look at our lives as a one-way path to winning – chasing objectively-measurable (ROI) success at all costs. Failure therefore has long been seen as something that reflects badly on our character and constitution, not our circumstances or context.

The cult of try, try again

In post-modern times these narratives of failure have been replaced with an equally damaging, absurd tale that, after the worst has passed, we’ll be able to rise again from the ashes and rebuild ourselves as everyone watches our indomitable power to resist and adapt in awe. Our news feeds are full of ‘inspirational’ mini documentaries celebrating the triumphs of long suffering, never-back-down heroes – from Elon Musk battling depression and getting fired, to a beaten-down Lizzo (below) almost quitting music after 10 years, but sticking it out.

This cult of post-failure rebirth can be just as detrimental as the 80s cut-throat Trump/Gordon Gekko convention of winning-at-all-costs that preceded it. It teaches us that winning is the only possible and desirable outcome – even when we fail.

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Toxic positivity rules the world

We can blame this on what some people call ‘toxic positivity’. This unbearable need to give everything a happy twist. Failing suddenly becomes ‘the beginning of a new story’ or some other platitude. It gets plastered on motivational posters and it loses all its meaning over a doubly authoritarian order: try to win even if you’ve lost. The absence of positivity is therefore perceived as both a moral flaw and a self-fulfilling prophecy – potentially triggering career inertia, failed relationships, and even, as Barbara Ehrenreich’s 'Smile or Die' (below) noted almost a decade ago, illness and death. No wonder companies are filling offices with mindfulness gurus and yoga classes to try and keep employees on the positivity party line.


The true face of losing

Where is the reality in these stories of successful people – from Richard Branson and his Christmas trees to James Dyson and his rejected prototypes – failing miserably before ‘making it’? We appreciate these tales, but it should bother us that the interim is simply ignored to the detriment of what is now shown as the final (and most important) chapter of the saga. What happened to them when they hadn’t won yet? How did they pay the bills? How did they tell their peers their much-anticipated plans had gone wrong? How did they gather the energy to get out of bed in the morning? How did they look at themselves in the mirror? It’s hard to believe that these people got through this as a period of pure maturing and learning simply because they held on to some kind of divine certainty that ‘their dreams would one day come true’. What if they hadn’t? What if yours don’t? Will you forever be a lost soul balancing your steps on the edge of mediocrity cliff because you never made it on the list of ‘30 people under 30 who are changing the world’ whilst you – quelle surprise – have never even managed to julienne your vegetables properly?

Shame on you for not even being good at being a loser!


Accept failure, and truly move on

Failing means failing. That’s it. You tried something and it didn’t work. Just accept that. We should be able to suffer from it, mourn it, resent it, but we don’t need to transform it into a black-swan story of how special we are and how people will eventually see it. Just accept it: you’ve failed. And that’s absolutely fine! We’re not saying we shouldn’t try to learn from our mistakes or even that we shouldn’t have another try at that or whatever else. All we’re saying is that it’s brutally vile to demand that we always find some way of morphing bad experiences into success stories.

Maybe what we tried to do didn’t work because of circumstances over which we had no control, maybe we made some crucial mistakes along the way, or maybe it just wasn’t a good idea to begin with. Regardless of why we failed, let’s just admit it and allow ourselves to fail fully and fail plenty. Only then might we be able to see things differently, to get some critical distance from something that we might have been a little too obsessed about. We’ve lost. We’ve failed. Move on or move away. Let’s just not be so ruthless as to force ourselves to find a win whenever we make a mistake. Learning from them means, first and foremost, acknowledging that things didn’t work. Perhaps something constructive will come out of it, like Carlsberg admitting it probably isn't the best beer in the world and actually making changes, or Sony Pictures acknowledging the Twittersphere’s horror and promising to go back to the drawing board on their toothy CGI version of Sonic the Hedgehog. Or, perhaps, we’ll simply add it to our anti-CV, but, if we never accept failure, we’ll remain trapped in a vicious cycle of delusions according to which winning is the only alternative.

And take heart: UK culture, at least, tends to embrace a heroic failure. As a market, we like to cheer on a try-er, however inept or ultimately fruitless their efforts: think Eddie the Eagle Edwards (below) on the ski slope, or John Sergeant (below) on Strictly Come Dancing, or the failed Beagle2 expedition. So again: don’t be afraid to fail, or even to be a little bit crap. We’ll probably love you anyway.


This article was taken from issue 2 of Marketing Society members-only publication EMPOWER. Find out more here and see past articles here (please note some articles are open to the public and some are for members only.)

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