A brief history of failure

by Ornella Sinigaglia

Culture 13 May 2021

Fail hard, fail better: failure is an opportunity. Does this sound like the mantra of a leadership coaching program? Slang for techies? Think again. Failure is as old as humankind, and so is its history. To understand why nowadays failure is not necessarily considered a bad thing (in fact, in certain environments, it’s highly recommended) we need to travel back in time and start with some of the most ancient written records on this topic. After all, a few things are more certain in life than the fact that we will all, at some point, screw it up. Sometimes, big time. Authentic, real, epic fails.

The Chinese writer and philosopher Lao Tzu was one of the first to think and write about failure. Scholars still debate whether he lived in the sixth or fourth centuries before Christ, but the fact of the matter is that in his Tao Te Ching, a classic of Chinese philosophical literature, he touches on failure multiple times. First, he warns about the perils of success. Success, he says, is as dangerous as failure. How? The ancient philosopher gives us a visual example: “Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky. But when you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance.” Was Lao Tzu suggesting inaction? Not quite—but that’s a different story, for which the keyword is ‘wu wei.’

Going back to the eternal battle between winners and losers, Lao Tzu had a few more interesting thoughts about how we, as humans, define success. About half-way through the Tao Te Ching, he challenges the reader with a question: “Success or failure: which is more destructive?” If the latter example didn’t resonate with you, this will at least sound familiar: “We will never truly be fulfilled, if we look to others for fulfillment.” And, “if our happiness depends on money, we will never be happy with ourselves.” In other words: how we measure success is all wrong, if we want to live a life of contentment. Fascinating how this made sense when cash was the only way money was circulating—no bonds, stocks, or securities. How would Lao Tzu comment on the greed of certain wolves of Wall Street?

Then, close to the end, comes that golden nugget about how good it is to fail. “Failure is an opportunity,” he writes. A very elegant way to say that in living a life of contentment, we will realize that success is actually failure. So “if you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame.” In fact, “the Master fulfills her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes.” In other words, well before project management and coding became sciences, the philosophical discipline of Daoism regarded failure as the way to success. You may have read a quote from Lao Tzu that goes like: “A winner always finds a way, a loser always finds an excuse.” Consider it a very simplified (almost superficial) synthesis of all this.

Around that same time, someone was preaching a very similar vision in India. Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha, left behind his wealth, wife, and child to embrace poverty and enlightenment. While this is a very concise way of telling a story that is also mixed with legends, his teachings still resonate with us. He realized that we are all unhappy, no matter how much richness, power, and love we achieve or accumulate. The way to happiness is to forego desires and live a simple life, maybe under a fruit tree, begging for alms from passers-by. The moral of the story is: what we call success is not success, and what we call as a loser’s life is the way to real success.

Greece is where society as a whole argues even more complex claims in favor of losers—after all, they will always outnumber winners. In ancient Greece, everybody agreed that you can be good, and yet fail. Tragic drama was the art form chosen to constantly remind of this common denominator of humankind. This genre peaked around the fifth century BC, and thanks to Aristotle’s Poetics, we can now understand their structure and key ingredients. For example, the hero of a tragedy has very specific traits: they are dignified, perhaps more than average, and always prone to making small mistakes. While their shortcomings may be innocuous at the beginning, later on in the story, it will become clear that they will lead to a catastrophe. They will turn out to be fatal. Fatal because fate was governed by the Gods, who decide people’s destiny. So, in a nutshell, tragedies become sympathetic and morally complex accounts of how good people can end up in disastrous situations. By inspiring pity for losers and fear for oneself, tragedies taught people not to admire only the successful, and view the unfortunate as losers.

Things changed radically with the rise of the Roman Empire, where success meant money, fame, and military glory. Julius Caesar, who began his career as a general and statesman, is arguably the one who brought this approach to success (and failure) to the point of no return. Caesar expanded the borders of the Roman republic to include France, Britain, parts of Germany, and even as far as Spain, Greece, and Egypt (among other nations). So it’s no surprise that he was officially recognized as a God upon his death in 44 BC. Such an example created a lot of anxiety around failure—and indeed, suicide was an expected consequence for generals who failed on the battlefield. Interestingly, suicide was far more accepted in ancient Rome than it was in Athens or Sparta, as it was seen as an individual’s right. Remember the gods who ruled over the lives of poor losers in Greek tragedies? Those days were long gone.

But it didn’t take long for things to be shaken up again—this time, once again within the borders of the Roman Empire. In 30 AD, Jesus of Nazareth delivered the Sermon on the Mount, in which he said: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” It was time for losers to shine again, and this time, big time and for centuries to come. In the eyes of God, the unfortunate and unsuccessful are, in a way, more successful than those who have it all. Their failure erodes arrogance and encourages dependence on the divine. Poverty and weakness are favored over the worldly values of money, fame, and military glory. In a sense, failing becomes a sign of being blessed. And the rest…is history.

Fast forward about 1,800 years. In Napoleon’s France, a new, subversive idea arose: Meritocracy. Modern-day Caesar claimed that under his rule, talent, not inherited rank, would determine who progressed and who did not. Napoleon instituted the Legion of Honor, to which worthy people of all classes could aspire. Success had become a lot fairer and well-deserved. Failure was not accidental because success was within everyone’s reach. A principle that now lies at the core of what is widely considered the American value system, which underlies the foundations of capitalism.

Half-way through the nineteenth century, two masterpieces of French and English literature glorified the accounts and successes of underprivileged individuals. They are Les Misérables and David Copperfield. Around this time, a new type of genius was defined: someone who was initially rejected by the world could ultimately be accepted and honored. In other words, real successes aren’t immediate successes: They may have to wait a long time. Examples include painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissaro, or Édouard Manet, among others.

American inventor Thomas Edison, who lived between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, actively pursued failure and the innovative use of failure as a tool for his success. From his experience and that of many others before him, we learned that not only should we expect innovations to fail, but that there are good reasons to want them to do so. Just do not say this to your investors when you’re seeking to finance your next big tech idea.

The beginning of our century saw the rise of the Occupy movement, whose slogan is “We are 99%,” the vast majority of the population. While winners never outnumber losers, in the end, they win again. Success is still measured by the number of zeros in your bank account, and yet the movement drew everybody’s attention to how we value a good life. Being a decent person doesn’t mean making a lot of money, but rather acting wisely towards others and the planet.

While in the Western world, Zuccotti Park was all of a sudden becoming synonymous with a movement, in China the term ‘diaosi’ (屌丝, literally ‘loser’) was becoming mainstream. The word was originally used to curse at someone, but it quickly became trendy among young Chinese to poke fun at their low status, as shown by a survey released by a local online game developer and IT marketing analysis website. Its focus: the generation mostly born in the post-1980s that were starting their careers a decade ago. They primarily live online, where they unleash their frustrations by playing out fantasy scenarios. In real life, they wear their diaosi identity as a badge of honor, especially for those who made it big. In 2013, an estimated 526 million identified with the term, amounting to 40% of the Chinese population, according to the survey.