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!

Video URL:

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


Copyright © 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(c)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(c)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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