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.

These days, complete failure is less assured. “More people are taking two or three direct torpedo hits to the engine room and trying to keep going,” Cook says. In part, this is because the electorate has grown more understanding of everything from mental instability to marital trouble; thanks are also due to certain politicians who pushed the boundaries of the possible. Cook believes that Bill Clinton’s success in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary, following the Gennifer Flowers scandal, marked a turning point, as did Clinton’s subsequent survival of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The acceleration of the news cycle has also helped to keep failure from sticking the way it once did. As Wendy Mogel, the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, the seminal adversity-is-good-for-you parenting manual, put it to me, the speed with which one viral scandal displaces another lulls an Anthony Weiner into thinking that he can plausibly argue, “I haven’t done anything wrong since 2012 and a half.”

The public still has its limits, of course; failure at one’s actual job is one. “People really liked Jimmy Carter,” points out the pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, but his inability to deal effectively with the economy or the Iranian hostage crisis meant “there was no coming back.” Job failure is not the same thing as pre-job failure, however: many politicians lost bids for the presidency before they won. The ur-example may be Richard Nixon, whose legendary goodbye to politics (“You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”) was followed several years later by a presidential victory. We have a robust tradition of electoral loss’s serving as a corrective to hubris. As an incumbent governor, a certain young Arkansas hotshot lost touch with the voters who had put him in the governor’s mansion. He failed to win reelection, won those voters back, and never forgot the lesson.

All of which calls to mind another Clinton. Hillary’s career has absorbed any number of mortal wounds and failures: the implosion of the health-care-reform effort she spearheaded as first lady, her husband’s betrayals, her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. Pressing on has only driven up her favorability ratings. “She just gritted it out,” Cook says. “Even a lot of Republicans at the end [of the primary] said, ‘Wow, she showed a lot of character.’ ”

In real life, of course, failure is sometimes just that: failure. Truth is, the current catalogue of pro-failure literature does not celebrate failure in all forms. We like failure when, and only when, it ends in victory. “Lots of people never achieve their goals; they do not achieve their dreams, even though they have worked really hard and prepared themselves,” points out Scott Sandage, a historian and the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. “To believe that failure is only a valuable lesson if it leads eventually to triumph really isn’t embracing failure at all. It’s crossing your fingers behind your back that eventually you’re going to succeed.” Victory and loss are often beyond our control, whatever we might like to think about our ability to triumph over circumstance.

And yet we like what we like for a reason. Other people’s failures, served up with the right ratio of struggle to eventual redemption, are interesting to watch. Failure and recovery make for a grand narrative, transforming an ordinary person or politician into something more like a literary character. Like odysseys and coming-of-age stories and parables of exile, failure gives a life or a career a pleasing dramatic arc. Bill Clinton’s failures and flaws, along with his political genius, are part of what make him one of the most compelling public figures of our time.

Which may be why Barack Obama, circa 2013, seems such a surprisingly flat and uncompelling figure. Though his childhood did impose adversity, Obama experienced little failure in adulthood; his campaign record includes just one electoral loss—to Bobby Rush in a 2000 congressional run—which was superseded by victory in his 2004 race for the U.S. Senate. It’s as if he was fast-forwarded into the White House, without being tested or tempered. It’s not clear that his recent clashes with implacable opponents or difficult foreign leaders or the sluggish U.S. economy have provoked a spate of post-traumatic growth. He seems untransformed by his setbacks in office. It’s almost as if he has gotten the story backwards, flipped the narrative. Success is supposed to come after failure, not before. When the reverse happens—when spectacular success is followed by failure or even just fumbling—the central character seems diminished rather than enlarged, optimism feels harder to come by, and the story just doesn’t have that stirring sense of downfall and digging-out that we seem, irresistibly, to want.