It’s fine to fail, failures are not quite the ‘pillars of success’

Meritocracy, equal opportunities and success to anyone willing to work hard is an illusion. Failures are normal, argues a new book

It’s fine to fail, failures are not quite the ‘pillars of success’

V Venkateswara Rao

Professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University Joe Moran’s new book, "If You Should Fail" is a soothing read during these trying times.

For some time now, failure has been a hot commodity. Failure, we are told, is a stepping stone to success. But Moran differs in his book. There is no shame, he says in believing the grapes hanging out of our reach are sour and moving on - it is a healthy and practical approach - rather than lamenting about what could have been. As Moran puts it, “sometimes, for no good reason, we just fail.”

All those who have succeeded in life are not necessarily geniuses. The reality is starkly opposite - rewards are determined by social and economic status that gives an obvious head start to the fortunate. Being at the right place at the right time also bestows success on even mediocre people.

Professor Moran reassures you that failure is an occupational hazard of being human. It is the small print in life's terms and conditions. If You Should Fail is about how modern life, in a world of broadcasting success, makes us feel like failures and imposters; so, we need more narratives of failures, and to see that not every failure can be made into a success - and that's OK. The book provides a selection of fascinating and often moving lives, characterised in some way by their failures.

A chapter on examinations recounts the system of imperial China, in which even a single false character in a Confucius quote could damn the candidate. Under the tyrannical examination system in imperial China, people from all walks of life often used to spend their entire lives and savings striving to pass a test that would appoint them as a bureaucrat with immeasurable power.

The Shandong writer Pu Songling (1640-1715), for instance, tried all his life, until his death aged 74, to ace the exams, but failed each time. He failed his exam at the age of 20 and never stopped re-trying for the rest of his life. His wife begged him to stop when they were in their 50s, but he went on until after she had died and he was 74. Every attempt meant a depletion of finances, as he had to travel to the capital to take the exam, apart from the mental agony that left him witless with exhaustion. Pu Songling’s predicament finds resonance to this day among the aspirants for the many competitive examinations in India.

We are drawn to the idea that we can turn our mistakes into milestones – but there are no great lessons to be learned from losing. “Certain kinds of optimism are crueller than pessimism,” Moran writes, “because they ask us to invest in a future that is at best unlikely and at worst a fantasy.”

"If You Should Fail" is a ­calming antidote to the world of ­professional gurus eloquently lecturing on the virtues of forever trying for success and giving inspirational diktats on how to use failure as a stepping stone to achieve success.

Moran has created a slim and cool-headed reflection on failure as a universally shared human trial. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” writes Moran in the book’s introduction “but nothing to celebrate either. Mostly it’s just a waste of time, something none of us mortals ever have enough of.” If You Should Fail is a book of solace. It conveys that even when failure never transcends itself and becomes success, it does not mean that the life it belongs to is itself a failure.

Failure, even when it is not a tragedy, is often the extinguishing of a possible life we may have led, and that is not a reconcilable loss. It may not be very productive to think about those failures, or very pleasant, but what is a consideration of failure without them?

Are we to suppose that these failures would have all come good had we read some inspiring quotes and books? We avoid dwelling on such failures because there is nothing constructive about doing so. But accepting that not everything we do is useful, not everything has a productive outcome, might be as worthwhile a pursuit than insistently refracting our failures to mean something they don’t.

'There is an honesty and a clarity in Joe Moran's book If You Should Fail that normalises and softens the usual blows of life that enables us to accept and live with them rather than be diminished/wounded by them' opined Julia Samuel, author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass.

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