Failure is the new success

For me, one of the very best things about blog­ging has been the oppor­tu­nity to con­nect with peo­ple I’ve long admired from afar. One of these is writer Laura Zig­man, author of sev­eral books includ­ing the darkly hilar­i­ous best­seller Ani­mal Hus­bandry.

Like prac­ti­cally every writer I know, Laura has been rid­ing out the ups and downs of a pub­lish­ing world chang­ing so fast that it seems in per­pet­ual free fall. But unlike most writ­ers, she’s man­aged to turn set­backs into mate­r­ial, most recently in a series of bril­liantly witty Xtra­nor­mal videos, includ­ing “Fail­ure Is the New Suc­cess,” which she gra­ciously agreed to share here. (She has a lot more to say about the Xtra­nor­mal series — and the cre­ative process — in this ter­rific inter­view.)

The abil­ity to make cre­ative use of set­backs — to incor­po­rate them into our larger story — is per­haps the most use­ful of all Plan B Nation tal­ents (with added points for black humor). No one does this bet­ter than Laura. I’ve never admired her more.

Laura Zig­man

by Laura Zig­man

Five or six years ago, I wrote 100 pages of a non-fiction book about failure.

And guess what?

It failed to sell to a publisher!

I love that punch-line — now — but at the time, the fail­ure of my fail­ure book made me feel like a total loser. No one was buy­ing fail­ure at the time as a gen­eral topic — even all tarted up with a “pos­i­tive” title like “Fail­ure: A Love Story,” since fail­ure, espe­cially finan­cial, wasn’t as wide­spread as it is now. The fact that my own per­sonal eco­nomic reces­sion started long before every­one else’s — before the actual and legit­i­mate eco­nomic reces­sion — was embar­rass­ing, and alien­at­ing. Back then, fail­ure was fail­ure, plain and sim­ple: a shame­ful lit­tle secret you con­fessed to as few peo­ple as pos­si­ble, not only to pre­serve your own dig­nity but also to spare oth­ers the dis­com­fort of deal­ing with your lack of success.

It’s dif­fer­ent now!

Fail­ure is cool! Fail­ure is hip!

Fail­ure has had a com­plete make-over and rebranding!

Fail­ure has become a com­pet­i­tive sport every­one wants to win at!

If I were pitch­ing my fail­ure story now, I’d boast that I was a fail­ure long before every­one else was. That I was at the “fore­front in the trend of downhill-career-trajectories.” A “trail-blazer in metab­o­liz­ing pro­fes­sional and artis­tic disappointment.”

Fail­ure has become some­thing to brag about and these days; everyone’s out there brag­ging about what a huge fail­ure they were.That lit­tle word — were — is cru­cial, because it’s past tense. It means recov­ery from fail­ure, tri­umph over fail­ure. Fail­ure is the ball and chain of suc­cess and there isn’t any­thing more brag-worthy than shed­ding the ball and chain and liv­ing to tell the tale. Or, liv­ing to boast about the tale. Nothing’s more Amer­i­can than a great come­back story — a story of redemp­tion and rein­ven­tion, a story of sur­vival, and self-reliance, resilience, and will to claw your way back from fail­ure to the shores of suc­cess, even if you’re down on all fours combat-crawling upon your arrival.

This Xtra­nor­mal video is about this new kind of fail­ure: “shame-free fail­ure.” And about the new phe­nom­e­non of brag­ging about fail­ure: the idea that if you suc­ceed at fail­ure long enough you will ulti­mately win at it. I’m not sure that win­ning at fail­ure is the same thing as win­ning in gen­eral — as true suc­cess — but for those of us who are tired of los­ing, we’ll take it!

Note: Guest post revised by the author on 6/22/2012


© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Failure is the new success

  1. I love the gen­eral orbit and con­cep­tion of this blog. I guess I approached some sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory at the end of a pre­vi­ous eco­nomic disaster–namely, at the end of the Eight­ies. I had some sim­i­lar wake-up real­iza­tions, but what I wrote (which was broad­cast in three sec­tions on pub­lic radio) was much less con­struc­tive and more intemperate.…

    Money, Money, You Bastard

    Part I

    by Tim Brookes

    At the end of the Eight­ies I felt in my pocket and dis­cov­ered that some­one had stolen all my money; or rather all the money I thought I had; or, more accu­rately, the money I thought I should have had. I was about to burst out in sur­prise and anger when I looked around and saw that every­one else was in exactly the same pos­ture, pock­ets pulled inside out, eye­brows ris­ing in the same arc of real­iza­tion, like the tra­jec­tory of the Wall Street Jour­nal that the paper­boy
    has just flung ris­ing and whirling towards your front window.

    Money is gen­er­ally seen as one of the world’s most valu­able com­modi­ties, so it’s remark­able how few peo­ple under­stand what it is or how it works. Or maybe it’s not remark­able. Per­haps it’s
    sim­ply that the more impor­tant some­thing is, the more sophis­ti­cated it becomes until all our metaphors are out of date and we’re left grasp­ing at salary as salt, money as barter while those who really under­stand money are whizzing through the fis­cal equiv­a­lent of quan­tum mechan­ics. Hands up all those who under­stand trad­ing in futures? Why do zero-coupon bonds go up when the stock mar­ket goes down? And if hous­ing is one of life’s three neces­si­ties, why can vir­tu­ally nobody afford a house with their own money? Our igno­rance is of immense value–to some­one else. It makes it very easy for some­one to mess around with our under­stand­ing of money. And that makes it very easy for some­one to mess around with our money.

    If the Eight­ies were the Any­thing Decade they were the Money Decade. The Eight­ies were invented, like a bizarre and cruel origami, or per­haps some­thing dif­fer­ent, per­haps a form of
    coun­ter­feit­ing, when David Stock­man, invent­ing supply-side eco­nom­ics, wrote money down on a paper nap­kin and showed it to Ronald Rea­gan, who nod­ded.
    “We can make our own money,” he said. “Look. David just did it.” Thus the Eight­ies were also the decade in which money was made rather than earned. In fact, the Eight­ies saw the inven­tion of a pro­gres­sion of increas­ingly weird money men­tal­i­ties, includ­ing the notion of–hell, the impor­tance of–“fun work” and expen­sive exer­cise, the inven­tion of the sexy char­tered accoun­tant, and the reli­gion of My Money’s Okay, Your Money’s Okay, the Eight­ies answer to EST, a Moonie Money Man­age­ment that smil­ingly reas­sured the obscenely wealthy that greed was a car­di­nal virtue, along with pride, Ger­man engi­neer­ing and good den­tistry; the Wall Street Jour­nal as an urbane break­fast orna­ment, a kind of black-and-white crois­sant; the stock­bro­ker who pumps iron over lunch instead of mar­ti­nis; the rit­ual gib­ber­ish of the Big Board; the sud­den spawn­ing of a thou­sand busi­ness mag­a­zines and sup­ple­ments, all bray­ing noth­ing but the good news, The Secret of My Suc­cess, chat­ter­ing like boy scouts about any­one who would buy an ad; and the par­al­lel pro­lif­er­a­tion of credit cards, no longer stiff and impor­tant but small and pretty and twit­ter­ing with birds on nifty embossed holo­grams, sexy and avail­able to any­one with any kind of credit his­tory, even if you were just out of Joliet; and the stun­ning tem­po­rary ele­va­tion in sta­tus of one Tom Rivers to whom every lunchtime National Pub­lic Radio cut live in Lon­don just so he could report on the spot on the Euro­pean and Japan­ese mar­kets as if they were royal wed­dings.
    Money was beaten into as many shapes in the Eight­ies as fash­ion was in the Six­ties, and it came as no sur­prise that, in order to estab­lish a des­per­ate firm foothold in this seman­tic pop­corn­ing, the firm of Smith Bar­ney actu­ally had to remind peo­ple what the word had meant a decade or two pre­vi­ously: they make money the old-fashioned way, old-fashioned John Hous­man droned: they earn it. What??? How square!!!

    And yet even that was an illu­sion. We slowly real­ized that, cam­ou­flaged by the new vocab­u­lary of arbi­trageurs and lever­aged buy­outage, stock­bro­kers were doing what com­puter crim­i­nals did in the pre­vi­ous decade: being sur­rounded by The New Money and under­stand­ing it as the pub­lic did not, they sim­ply took as much as they liked, and nobody was the wiser. Money was caught up in the wind of change and whirled up out of the grasp of those of us who thought that, like Smith Bar­ney, we had just earned it; and while we all thought the Eight­ies was like the film of a parade down Wall Street with dol­lar bills instead of tick­er­tape, it was actu­ally like the film in reverse, the money being wafted in a paper storm back up to those high win­dows where it was clutched by those wav­ing hands, leav­ing you and me stranded on a sud­denly des­o­late street with the home­less yank­ing at our sleeves and the gut­ters lit­tered with the burned-out hulks of a hun­dred bank­rupt Sav­ings and Loans.

    And the only per­son who saw this clearly was Mar­tin Scors­ese, in his film The Color of Money. The New Money, he said, became Tom Cruise, son of the Hus­tler: it danced, it coiffed its hair, it
    mas­quer­aded as excel­lence, that Bud­dhist virtue Tom Peters ripped off the back seat of Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance; it spun its cue-stick, it grinned a grin like dia­monds in the
    dark­ness, it sank the eight ball while sneer­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion at the old guy who dared to think that expe­ri­ence or God help us wis­dom counted for any­thing any more; it was fol­lowed
    around by Mark Eliz­a­beth Mas­tran­to­nio in a black leather miniskirt–but in the end, Scors­ese knew, it was noth­ing but those things. In the end, The New Money would turn out to be small and bit­ter and self­ish and stu­pid, and when all was said and done it knew noth­ing of any­thing but itself.

    Part II

    At the end of the Eight­ies I felt in my pocket and dis­cov­ered that some­one had stolen all my money. The thieves had got in by steal­ing my metaphors for money, which dur­ing the decade had under­gone the Third Great Money Meta­mor­pho­sis, the first being the change from barter of use­ful goods to the inven­tion of pre­cious met­als, the sec­ond being the change from pre­cious met­als to paper promises of no actual value. In the Third Great Meta­mor­pho­sis money became sub-atomic.

    I knew this when I noticed that on my cable TV dial those alter egos, the Home Shop­ping Net­work and Evan­gel­i­cal Chan­nel were next to each other on the dial, both flash­ing 800 num­bers; and at once I real­ized a sin­is­ter holy gothic alliance had been formed between tele­vi­sion and tele­phone, God and money. In the Eight­ies there was no longer a ques­tion of ren­der­ing to Cae­sar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s; money became God’s again, but in the weird­est way, as if a Sev­en­ties Hare Krishna had taken his act one step tougher and snuck up behind you in the air­port and gobe after not your pock­et­book but the base of your skull, hav­ing learned that money itself is not as impor­tant as the will to money, that once the will is tapped the money will flow out of the neu­ro­log­i­cal upper-spinal tap until the patient drops dead and even after­wards, as pro­bate is based on, and named after, the will.

    But it was even sub­tler than that, because sci­ence was involved too. The Hare Krish­nas of the Eight­ies no longer needed icepicks or even air­ports because the sec­ond great money inven­tion of the
    decade was that money became a fas­ci­nat­ing new sub­atomic par­ti­cle at once elec­tronic and bio­log­i­cal and divine, the dol­lon, a dis­cov­ery cred­ited jointly to Jimmy Swag­gart and Jim Bakker and Jerry Fal­well and Bud Pax­son, the money evan­ge­list who founded the Home Shop­ping Net­work. All were offered the Nobel Prize, which they all passed up in favor of the cash, but accepted instant induc­tion into the Holy Sci­ence Hall of Fame in Lynch­burg, Vir­ginia, plus 51% own­er­ship of a theme park of their choice.
    And they deserved it, because the dol­lon was an incred­i­ble, an inevitable inven­tion, a Uni­fied Field Par­ti­cle that could swim in all elec­tri­cal cur­rents, even those in the human brain. It moved so fast and so sub­tly but with such momentum–yes, it’s true: a par­ti­cle can have no mass but momen­tum and even spin, as if it were a tiny George Bush, and even charm, as if it were a tiny Ronald Rea­gan; and the dol­lon had all of these as it leaped out of the TV and into our ner­vous sys­tem like a 21st-century Roto-Rooter, dri­ving our will to money ahead of it right out and arc­ing into the tele­phone and back home to papa, leav­ing us feel­ing exhausted and broke but some­how com­plete, part of the loop, part of a larger divine union, part of Amer­ica.
    Dol­lons were sta­bled in New York and Chicago at the exchanges, not han­dled and rubbed down but kept in com­put­ers labeled “Pro­gram Trad­ing,” so that when the Dow hit 2000 the bell went off, the flap at the front of the Wangs and Crays and IBMs flew up and the dol­lons streaked off across the coun­try while the pun­ters cheered and waved. But the bell went off when the Dow was on the way down, too, and sud­denly the dol­lons were off too quickly for their han­dlers to cry “Run on the bank!” and slam the doors and wrought-iron grilles, which the dol­lon had been designed to pass through any­way; all morn­ing the dol­lons ran back and forth between New York and Chicago at the speed of light, send­ing every­thing into a Philip K. Dick­ens of a state, dump­ing count­less shares into the ether as if the dol­lons owned them in the first place, sell­ing imag­i­nary futures that cre­ated more imag­i­nary futures that forced the sell­ing of more imag­i­nary futures so that by the time the mar­ket finally closed and the dol­lons whizzed round to the dark side of the planet, some­how $130 bil­lion had van­ished with­out any­thing sub­stan­tial hav­ing even moved, with­out any­thing sub­stan­tial hav­ing even been touched (except per­haps the odd beshit­ten Wall Street pants-seat) as if the Hare Krish­nas had bro­ken into the vaults and stolen only the air inside, leav­ing the echo­ing un©noise of an immense inaudi­ble implo­sion.
    Next day the zom­bies rode the sub­way to Wall Street as usual, a lit­tle pale per­haps around the
    knuck­les clutch­ing the Wall­StreetJour­nal­brief­ca­se­um­brella but oth­er­wise unchanged.

    Yes, that was the dol­lon for you; even the cus­to­di­ans of the New Money under­es­ti­mated it. They thought it was merely fast and styl­ish, like, say, a red 66 Corvette in a Lowen­brau ad. But the
    dol­lon left us all behind, clutch­ing our old metaphors for money like diehard 1919 physi­cists clutch­ing their lit­tle New­ton­ian clock­work mod­els of the uni­verse; it accel­er­ated to the speed of light, and all it left us with was the New Money joke: What do you call a yup­pie stock­bro­ker? Waiter!

    Part III

    The Eight­ies saw the inven­tion of a pro­gres­sion of increas­ingly weird money men­tal­i­ties. The weird­est of these was that money became a ven­tril­o­quist. It kept appear­ing where it wasn’t. It sud­denly seemed it that every­one had it–“I’m over here! I’m over here!” the New Money yelled cheer­fully out of people’s mouths, their tele­vi­sions, their garages, their bathrooms–and there­fore there must be some­thing wrong with me because I didn’t.
    Every­one else ate pre­mium ice cream. Every­one else drank expen­sive min­eral water. Even my stu­dents drove brand-new yellow-and-black VW Rab­bit con­vert­ibles (at the begin­ning of the decade) and brand©new maroon Saab Tur­bos (at the mid­dle of the decade) and invaded the Vir­gin Islands instead of Florida dur­ing Spring Break.
    It came as a puz­zling dull shock, like a piledriver two blocks away, when I dis­cov­ered that my house­hold income was in the top 15% for our mar­ket area (the Eight­ies term for town). If I was so well off, why was I so poor? Could it be because I had dared to buy a house, with an upstairs and a down­stairs? Surely not; after all, it was the small­est house on the block, and in any case the news­pa­pers were mot­tled like Dal­ma­tians with bad pho­tographs of expen­sive houses–hell, whole news­pa­pers were spring­ing up with noth­ing but. Bogus home sec­tions appeared, with thin one-column wire sto­ries on inte­rior design slammed against the gut­ter by cor­pu­lent announce­ments of new condo devel­op­ment open­ings. In the first seven years of the decade, the num­ber of real­tors in Ver­mont grew by 79%. The aver­age house price grew by 222%.
    As the pur­chas­ing power of the dol­lar dropped and more and more cou­ples had to take on two jobs, the New Money con­tin­ued its incred­i­ble illu­sion: every­one thought they were get­ting wealth­ier. Or, rather, every­one thought that every­one else was get­ting wealth­ier. Com­mon sense was left gasp­ing like a fish: befud­dled by this ven­tril­o­quism, we all slipped into the worst money-management habits of our lives, the worst spend­thriftery. We couldn’t help it. We tried to drink water with din­ner, but the peo­ple we’d invited over always drank Beau­jo­lais Nou­veau; we tried to buy Ched­dar, but every­one else was buy­ing Dou­ble Glouces­ter or Boursin, and pop went the weasel. The Jone­ses had mul­ti­plied like a social­ist night­mare into a whole new class, a casual, wide-trousered, dock­sidered, moon-roofed, cross-training, leo­tarded, spin­naker­ing class, an upper-upper-upper mid­dle class that was shoul­der­ing its way out from among Mass Amer­ica and into a stratos­pheric computer-generated process-color stra­tum called Qual­ity of Life, where they passed Grey Poupon from one dining-car to another with Robin Leach bob­bing and duck­ing at their heels like a trained chimp.
    They set the new rules for con­sump­tion and taste, just as the new Eng­lish mid­dle class did in the eigh­teenth cen­tury and the new Amer­i­can mid­dle class did in the nine­teenth; they were the ones who relaxed while every­one else stressed out and could only be con­tent when we were bask­ing in a
    mag­a­zine: drink­ing Moet/getting a facial/getting a good ther­apy ses­sion, which of course we owed our­selves, even if our­selves couldn’t pay for us, for con­tent­ment was the first, last and
    endur­ing vic­tim of the Decade of Money.
    In our hearts we knew the Upper-upper-upper-middles had no qual­i­ties other than know­ing how to spend money, but in the Eight­ies that was all they seemed to need. Except to exist. Which they didn’t. Ha ha.
    The upper-upper-upper mid­dles were merely the grand­est illu­sion of the Money
    Ven­tril­o­quist. Every­one, in fact, had less money than before, except the super-rich, who have always been with us, like influenza.
    We were all fooled. We were all recruited. We all became dum­mies in a the­ater whose base­ment was slowly fill­ing with gas.

    So here’s the answer, the way to elude this ghastly metaphor­less post-atomic physicule: no more pre­tend­ing. No more jerk­ing around on the strings of credit agree­ments, no more shame, no more lip­synch­ing to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Me, I’m going to wear sweaters indoors, get angry and start recy­cling.
    In the end, what the Eight­ies pro­duced was a decade of waste to be shov­eled up, a dis­pos­able gen­er­a­tion, ten whole years that were the aber­ra­tion of cap­i­tal­ism just as the Berlin Wall was the aber­ra­tion of com­mu­nism. No prod­uct of the Eight­ies will stick, except per­haps the band Dire Straits, but the decade will nev­er­the­less achieve immor­tal­ity like the Fly­ing Dutch­man, or rather like the famous garbage scow for­ever cir­cling the globe look­ing for a dump to call home.
    You’re solid waste, Ronald Rea­gan, you’re solid waste, James Watt, you’re solid waste, designer eye­wear and junk bonds and Bay­ernische Motor­W­erken and Enter­tain­ment Tonight and USA Today. You’re solid waste, Grey Poupon. And in the Nineties we aren’t even going to recy­cle you. We’re just not going to make you any more. Money, money, you bas­tard, I’m through.

  2. LOL! And inter­est­ingly, “LOL” is appro­pri­ate. I had a co-worker (when I was working—I no longer have a JOB—but that’s not fair—I chose that) who got really mad at me and told me “Katie, quit laugh­ing so much—not every­thing is FUNNY.” To which I replied “Oh (name deleted), I know every­thing is not funny. I have a chronic health prob­lem that inter­feres reg­u­larly with my daily func­tion­ing and I have a child with a severe disability—but MOST things are funny!“
    I have found that humor helps almost every­thing. Yes, I have moments when I think “This sucks—in a big way”, but then some­thing tick­les my funny bone, and I can’t help it—I see the joy. See­ing the joy has made all the dif­fer­ence in my fail­ures to live the sup­posed “suc­cess­ful life.” Keep on mak­ing folks laugh, Laura. No fail­ure in that! And thanks for post­ing this Amy!

  3. Fab­u­lous! Many years ago, I read a Dil­bert car­toon that sug­gested that if you couldn’t suc­ceed, you should fail at some­thing BIG. I took that to heart.

  4. Inter­est­ingly, I caught part of a story on ATC last night about fail­ure in the tech start-up indus­try. Per­son after per­son extolled the virtues of fail­ure (to the tune of mil­lions of lost investor dol­lars). It was quite stun­ning, and oddly inspiring.

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