In Failure Lab, which will be presented at the Detroit Opera House on November 21, is described as “an intimate evening showcasing personal stories of failure.” The catch is that none of the speakers frame the stories in terms of stepping stones to success. They do not follow up with lessons learned or how they went on to great things. They just contemplate the experience of failing.
Three years ago (on another Detroit television station) I explained the reason I wanted to write Broke is Beautiful.
“You can find lots of stories about broke people doing well but they always end with ‘and then they got rich.’ And I wanted to talk about living a good life if ‘and then they got rich’ doesn’t happen.”
Why should anyone want to do this? Isn’t it dwelling on the negative? Shouldn’t you be striving for success?
Only discussing failure as part of a success narrative isolates people. It doesn’t give anyone an opportunity to share the experiences that are shaping their lives until after the fact, and only after some sort of “happy end” has been achieved. It blinds us to the fact that our stumbling, bumbling, awkwardness, and the pain of falling short of great dreams unites us as human beings.
The British, I think, have much more of an understanding of this. As an illustration, here is clip of Stephen Fry talking about the difference between British and American humor:
In this clip he talks about our self-help culture and the American “idea that life is refinable and improvable.” What I would add is that not only do we think we can improve our lives we feel that we must improve our lives.
It is important to expand the narrative about success and failure to include empathy for those who do not reach the top (and recognition that they are us). Then we can give each other a pat on the back, a helping hand, and laugh at our foibles and theirs.
I have a sense that perhaps our narrative about failure is changing in the wake of the Great Recession. The limits of our control in the universe have been made clear. This is related (in a way I hadn’t expected until I started writing this) to my post yesterday on having only one narrative in popular culture. The problem with the narrative failure as a stepping stone to success, the self-made man, always winning in the end is not that it is a bad story. It can be motivating and uplifting, and sometimes that is just what you need. But it is not always what you need. Sometimes you need to be reassured that we’re all a bit screwed up and we’re all in this together.
Incidentally, if the premise of Broke is Beautiful sounds interesting and you would like autographed copies for the people on your gift list, you can order directly from the author (support a starving artist) by following the link.