In Praise of Falling Down; In Fear of Always Winning

They’ve got a name for the winners in the world,
And I want a name when I lose. (Walter Becker and Donald Fagan)

Winning! (Charlie Sheen)

What is it with all this winning and winners? I thought America pulled for underdogs, but that is not true. The Yankees are popular because they win a lot, never mind their outsized payroll that lures top players from other teams. The Cubs were laughed at for years, but no longer with that World Series trophy in their clubhouse. Everyone roots for the Cubs. Few want to root for the losing team, of course, but always shifting allegiances to the current winner seems like cheating.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

It seems natural to admire winners and to want to be like them, but our obsession with winning and winners has become unnatural. We see this in people’s shifting sports loyalties, our strange veneration of the rich and famous whatever their actions or motive, and, of course, our political class. Winning is all there is, and only losers admit to losing as though there is some magic strength in denying reality or some virtue in running from the truth.

Vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. (Charles Blow)

One need not engage too much brain power to realize that facing error, admitting or even embracing defeat takes a good deal more resilience and temerity than winning or claiming to win all the time. Vulnerability takes guts and wherewithal and leads to learning and increased understanding. Climbing out on a limb can get you to the fruit at the end of the branch. Yes, the branch may break, and you may get hurt. But, you will learn something about yourself and about the limits of tree branches for future ventures. Chopping down the tree, collecting all the fruit, and declaring victory is shortsighted and dishonest. Once all the fruit is gone, there is nothing left. Falling gets you further.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed. (Michael Jordan)

Failure, like exercise, takes strength and it builds strength. Failure also takes guts and resilience. Frankly, cowards never fail because they never try. Or, worse still, they make excuses and deny failure. Politicians have long mastered the art of redefining success downward. If your bill fails, you declare victory because you received more support than expected, and this flagrant disingenuousness works. More recently, the political impulse to blame others, redefine victory downward, manufacture the appearance of success, denigrate enemies as losers, and deny the possibility of error altogether has become more entrenched. Reading that list aloud sounds like I am describing a schoolyard filled with arrogant bullies. We deny the inevitably of failure and the benefits of failing at the expense of future progress. Failure may be hard to face, but it is a special category of weakling who goes to great lengths to avoid that reality.

If I don’t have red, I use blue. (Pablo Picasso)

Failure makes us adaptive and resilient and fosters creativity, as well. Coming up short and facing that fact can stretch our abilities and challenge our sense of limitation. The best artists, scholars, athletes, and, yes, even politicians learn from failure and grow from error. The truly best live the philosophy Miles Davis espoused in his colorful way: “Be wrong strong. Otherwise, sit it the f**k out.”

Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent. Marilyn vos Savant

The goal of trying is success, certainly, but how do we define and measure success? Is success getting the goods or getting more of the goods than others? Remember your childhood, there was always some kid on the block who would suddenly rush over to a tree or street sign or parked car, touch it, and say “I win!” Maybe your sibling was that kid. Maybe you were that kid. Everyone else would stand around dumbfounded and annoyed because they had no inkling that there was some spontaneous race breaking out. And, no amount of protest or argument could keep this obnoxious kid from strutting around full of self-conceit. How is it different, then, to declare oneself the richest or the best or the most famous when no one else was competing or when the competition was rigged? Yet, we adulate people who are like that every day, even those who inherited their wealth or lucked into success or found fame through infamy. How else could we have people who are famous simply for being famous? They contribute nothing. They achieve nothing. They have few redeeming qualities, but we make the celebrities, or, worse still, our elected officials.

Meanwhile, failure–beneficial and productive failure–takes talent and skill and resolve. Brazen winning is simply brazen and empty.

I saw how we are all great in our shortcomings, yea,
greater because of them. (John Ashbery)

In short, no one is perfect. In fact, no one is truly great in the most superlative sense. The limitations, foibles, flaws, and errors of our lives shape our identities at least as much as our achievements and virtues. While many will hide behind this imperfection to excuse away stumbles and misdeeds, we really imagine that there is some paragon out there, of morals or discipline or achievement, etc. Of course there isn’t.

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate. (Thomas J. Watson, Sr.)

We all fail. It is a human inevitability. It through failure that we achieve and recognize success. Pity the dull-witted, cowardly perennial winners. As Wallace Stevens observed, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

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