Politics October 2013

Losing Is the New Winning

How we came to fetishize failure
Walter Green

Now is the time for all good men to fail. Good women, too. Fail early and often, and don’t be shy about admitting it. Failing isn’t shameful; it’s not even failure. Such is the message of a growing body of self-help and leadership literature. “Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?” asks the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in which she argues that a willingness to court failure can be a precursor to growth. Dweck holds, persuasively, that successful people are not the ones who cultivate a veneer of perfection, but rather those who understand that failing is part of getting smarter and better.

The same point is made in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly (a best seller that borrows its title from Teddy Roosevelt’s exhortation that when you fail, the important thing is to do it while “daring greatly”); Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure; Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error; and Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio’s tour of “colossal” scientific mistakes that led to breakthroughs. Next spring, Sarah Lewis’s forthcoming book, The Rise: Creativity, Mastery, and the Gift of Failure, will reflect on “flops, folds, setbacks, wipeouts and hiccups,” and the “dynamism” they inspire. The failure fetish is even finding its way into modern parenting. Reacting against the tendency to cushion children with coaches and tutors, authors like Po Bronson, Paul Tough, and Wendy Mogel argue that we need to allow our children to fail, because struggle builds resilience and grit. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the ability to speak perceptively and candidly about one’s past failures has practically become a job qualification. A prospective employee (or an applicant for venture-capital funding) who has survived a failed start-up is someone who has learned valuable lessons on someone else’s dime.

Given this growing cultural fixation on failure, it was probably inevitable that politicians would begin clambering aboard the pro-failure bandwagon. “I failed. Big time” is how the disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer put it in an ad promoting his candidacy for New York City comptroller in this November’s election, arguing that his 2008 prostitution scandal was not entirely a bad thing. “You go through that pain,” Spitzer said in a July television interview, “you change”—the implication being that the change must have been for the better. Mortification, Spitzer has suggested, can make a person more “empathetic.” Leaving aside the question of whether empathy is a quality one wants in a comptroller, it does seem that in politics, failure, done right, may have recently turned a corner. Far from being a liability, failure—and humble emergence from failure as sadder, wiser, etc.—has become something to tout.

This idea is not entirely new. As the historian Robert Dallek pointed out to me, overcoming failure—bankruptcy, addiction, dissolution, defeat—is part of the quintessential American success story. Failure narratives resonate with all sorts of deeply held cultural tenets, from Christianity’s focus on forgiveness and rebirth to the frontier mentality’s emphasis on prevailing over obstacles both external and internal, including our own imperfect selves. Still, some eras seem to crave stories of redemption more than others. It seems no accident that after a punishing half decade in which failure descended upon millions in the forms of foreclosure, job loss, factory shutdowns, workplace realignment, growing economic inequality, and dwindling options, we delight in hearing that NASA, according to Dweck, prefers to hire aspiring astronauts who have failed and bounced back, rather than those who have enjoyed easy successes.

But how to think of the public figures now before us, asking that their trespasses be forgiven? Along with Spitzer they include South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who won a congressional seat just four years after his extramarital Argentinian excursion, and Anthony Weiner, whose recidivism as a compulsive sexter confirmed that it’s possible to dare too greatly, or maybe bare too greatly. To the list of undaunted failers we might add a few prominent nonpoliticians, like Jonah Lehrer, whose book Imagine was pulped last year when he was found to have fabricated quotes, but who has already landed a deal to write another; or David Petraeus, who movingly apologized for the sex scandal that cost him his leadership of the CIA and who is now flourishing in academe and private equity.

When is a public figure’s failure a sign of abiding character flaws, and when is it a harbinger of growth? When is an attempted comeback a marker of tenacity, and when is it a red flag signifying a delusional lack of self-awareness? And—considering that Louisiana Senator David Vitter is still in office despite the prostitution problem that came to light in 2007—is it even possible, in our scandal-sogged culture, for a politician to permanently fail?

“I failed. Big time,” says the disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer in an ad promoting his candidacy for New York City comptroller.

Once upon a time, it was. “In the old days, if you were involved in a scandal, and if it was sufficiently bad, you sort of did the honorable thing. You know: ‘I have committed an unpardonable sin, and I’m going to drop out and never run again,’ ” the political analyst Charlie Cook told me. The failure didn’t have to be full-fledged; it could be a mere foible. In 1972, Edmund Muskie’s presidential candidacy was short-circuited when he was widely believed to have cried during a press conference (a charge he denied); despite his stature in the Senate, he never again enjoyed serious presidential prospects. When, in the course of the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, Gary Hart was discovered to be monkeying around with Donna Rice, he dropped out of the race and went into seclusion. He later attempted a comeback, but it fizzled.

Presented by

Liza Mundy is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Our Culture.

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