Friday, March 30, 2012


The verb and noun associated with failure are the equivalent of the tails given youngsters before the start of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.  They represent missed connections, missed opportunities, performances so off-target that they produce the laughter of derision as their reward rather than the candy bar or cheap toy given as a prize for the one player coming closest to anatomical reality.

The entire scenario of Pin the Tail on the Donkey can be argued to be a mass exercise in which young persons are inoculated against exposure to risk or to risk’s cousin, accident.  Such games inject the worm of potential humiliation into play.  Winners are seen as those being closest to the norm.  Losers are, in effect, scolded into refocusing their vision of what is and what is not correct.

Failure often brings with it the added burden of having disappointed someone or some religious, social, or philosophical ideal.  A typical example of such early stages of failure is the failure to share which, because it speaks to one of the great tenets of the social contract, is rated in severity several degrees higher than failure to turn out the lights or to do one’s assigned social chores.

Another early type of failure is the failure to prepare in advance for some requirement, something as quotidian as doing one’s homework, say, or the more egregious failure to prepare for an examination.  From such failures, we learn valuable lessons about planning for future events.

How difficult it is to remember that exquisite moment when your failure was more of a disappointment to you than to any code of behavior or the disappointment you may have caused one or more individuals.  To say you had few or no failures as you raced from your early years into your twenties and thirties would betray a serious vacation you’d taken from Reality without acquiring souvenirs or touristy tee shirts.  Your failures, sometimes epic, were in degree of attitude, in control of maintaining yourself as a functioning organism.  There were some near misses where grades were concerned, some c minuses; even a D when it seemed to you that geometry was forever out of your reach.  There was the one F of which you were actually proud, ROTC.

Your hope in writing about failure in general and that specific moment where you understood how much you cared and how your own performance was at least the equal of others involved will in time provide you with the memory of the event, as so many of the things you have written about herein bring the sharp etch of recall.

You do recall one circumstance in your thirties, and in your first editor in chief circumstance, where your lack of attention to production cost details on a particular title produced the landscape for a financial disaster.  You approached the publisher with the information, well before the fact, and with it a list of possible solutions, including scrapping the project.

“Well, well,” the publisher told you.  “You’ve made your first big mistake.  You must give back all your bonuses for your good results, take an immediate pay cut, and suffer a demotion.”  Then she smiled. “I did not hire you for parts of you, but for the whole person.  Get your ass back to work.”

The publisher decided to go forth with the work, which ultimately earned out.  No profit to speak of, but no loss, and a reasonably worthwhile project.

Nearly ten years later, in another publishing house, you’d made an error in judgment of an author and of an executive member of the publishing team.  This time, no finances were involved.  You believed you had an effective strategy to employ. When you presented the publisher with the data, he expressed his disappointment in you, three times, all the while you attempting to draw his attention to your memo of subsequent strategy.
When he expressed his disappointment in you the fourth time running, you observed that the publishing house had scant room for a victim, and he was taking the entire room.  Your resignation was on his desk the next day.

Through some inherent lack, whether of interest, insight, or a combination of the two, you fail to see the extensive admiration of and appreciation for Samuel Beckett.  There are, for you, a number of his works, in particular the prose narratives, alive with a resonance, insightfulness, and steadfast deliberation.  In equal measure, there are some of his works that have left you with no sense of having been occupied.  Nevertheless his presence is indelible with you for his mantra about failure.  Fail again, but fail better.

Failure is not the goad to you that it has become to so many you read and hear about.  Perhaps this is because you see nothing extraordinary about it.  Perhaps this is because you see the notion of perfection as being more hype than shimmering reality.  Perhaps your algebraic and geometric deficiencies obtain in your failure to see a connection with successful execution and perfection.

Failure is merely not doing something as well as you’d have liked, given your feelings invested in it.  Thus feelings trump failure, and thus you will surely try again in support of your feelings, whether this is story related, relationship related, or understanding related.

You will not reread Beckett for the stature of having “gotten” him, whatever that may mean, but for the respect to someone for whom the work mattered to the point where he tried to wrest a living language from it, a language that could carry for sentences and paragraphs and entire scenes the load he placed upon it.

Failure is every bit as much a part of life as death is.  When an individual dies, we do not say of her, she failed at life; instead, we recall all the wonders she provided for the persons, animals, and plants she cared for.  We say of her, she succeeded in living a life that transferred the pleasures of being alive.  And then we say of her that she died, but we neither say nor think she failed.  We maybe aware of some project she failed to complete or some goal she failed to reach, but we rate her as we rate ourselves, aware for a time, perhaps even aware of abilities or strengths for a time, aware of having a finite amount of energy to which these abilities and strengths maybe put.

What does failure mean to you?

Failure means not having got it, whatever it maybe—including life, itself—right, but don’t go away.  Not yet.

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