This week, I’ve been thinking about failure, and how society looks on people who are deemed to be failures. We live in a time frantic to document itself digitally, with some inhibiting effects. “Fail blogs” catalogue pictures and video clips of people making mistakes in all kinds of scenarios. Slapstick, banana-skin situations, Johnny Foreigner typos and social faux pas are all par for the course. The message is clear: failure is for laughing at and failure happens to other people.
While I think it’s healthy to have a sense of humour about things, I think the rictus grin of fail bloggers and #epicfail hashtaggers on Twitter masks a coarsening of attitudes towards failure. If we’re taught not to try risky things because others might laugh at our failures, then we’re aiming for the middle ground; for unthinking docility and worst-dressed-list-avoidance sterility. I think this is continuous with a worrying trend to medicalise perfectly ordinary character traits as failures of balance in need of biochemical redress (e.g. shyness as ‘social anxiety disorder’ http://nyti.ms/m2ZXuF).
Failure is a part of life, and an important part of life, at that. We’re guided by our mistakes (mistakes in triplicate, in my case) and we should cherish our failures as marks of having tried. It would be too much to aim to apply a Beckettian template of ‘failing better’ to our lives, but failure adds texture to our life – it’s the crunch in the ice, and sadly, it seems easiest to know when something was important to us when we’ve failed to achieve it.
Serena Williams's outburst at the US Open, 2009. (Picture credit: EPA)
But the story of failure includes how we respond to it. At her 2009 US Open semi-final match, Serena Williams famously lost match point with a default point for misconduct. Her offence was to verbally abuse a lineswoman, and she was subsequently fined US$92 000 for her behaviour. Clearly, Serena Williams’s tirade was unacceptable: it was a failure of character. However, despite a dubious initial reaction to her punishment, Serena Williams seemed to learn some measure of humility from her mistake and redirected the maelstrom of publicity around her to raise a matching US$92 000 for Haitian earthquake survivors. This strikes me as a winning response to failure.
Research into ‘failure tolerance’ or how responses to failure affect future behaviour has been done in economics (http://bit.ly/j3uDaa). One interesting finding is that where a society is generous in giving people (entrepreneurs) a second chance, that’s a good indicator that the economy will grow. What’s this tell us about Captain Scott and Co.? Well, for one thing, the UK scores more highly for entrepreneurship (risk-taking) than Norway over the past century. Relatedly, people in the UK are more willing to wish someone well on their ‘second chance’ than people in Norway.
A bit of cod psychology might suggest that this maps on to Scott’s and Amundsen’s divergent expedition approaches. Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was, in fact, his second chance, as his Discovery expedition to Antarctica a few years earlier ended with a rescue mission to his men, as their ship was stuck in sea ice. Scott’s Antarctic programme was rich in scientific interest and an insatiable curiosity to discover. Amundsen, meanwhile, came from a relatively young country (independent from 1905) that was keen not to embarrass itself as it established a presence on the world stage. This matches Amundsen’s cooler logistical planning and execution. Maybe I shouldn’t make such crude geopolitical generalisations, but I do think that early twentieth century people thought along patriotic/nationalistic lines more rigidly than we do today.
There’s a notion of ‘moral luck’, championed by philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams, that throws interesting light on moral judgements. In a nutshell, people can’t be held responsible for things they don’t have control over, but when we judge someone’s actions to be praiseworthy or blameworthy, we seem to need to take into account things that depend on contingent factors. For example, how things turn out is largely beyond our control.
Susan Scott has studied meteorological patterns (http://bit.ly/muoomM) that suggest that Captain Scott and his companions encountered a window of extremely harsh weather that they could not have predicted. If Scott’s team had not encountered this freak weather system, they might have survived. We would judge Scott differently then, as a ‘success’ and as a good leader. But why? Surely Scott’s actions are the same, whatever the weather system, and he can’t be held responsible for the weather. This casts doubt on our intuitions about how to assess Scott’s failure/success.
Yes, against some identifiable benchmarks, we can say that Scott failed. He failed to reach the Pole first (for those that that interests). He failed to lead four men back to safety. But can we say Scott himself was a failure? I don’t think we can fairly make a stable judgement on this. What do you think?