There was a time when square-jawed heroes would look their (all male) team in the eye and say, “Failure is NOT an option” and no one would laugh.
Failure was for wimps.
Not any more.
Now, for many of us, the opportunity for failure is a constant part of our daily lives.
Failure is something we have all experienced. Success is just an urban legend.
For me, the wake up call for the success myth was “Fight Club” back in 1999. I remember the IKEA-obsessed narrator saying: ” This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” and thinking, yeah that’s me.
But when Tylor Durden went on to say: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” I lost sympathy with him.
I wasn’t pissed off. I wasn’t even slightly surprised. I just wanted to figure out what I should do with the failures I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid.
Now, a decade or so later, the new generation of teenagers seem to be coming up with a more interesting response to the high probability of failure than Durden’s “I want to destroy something beautiful” approach. The current generation seem to have decided that failure should be met with courage and good humour.
At least that’s the conclusion I reached when I read “Forsaken” (AKA “The Demon Trapper’s Daughter”) by Jana Oliver. Set in Atlanta in 2018, the book tells the story of Riley Blackthorne, a demon trapper’s daughter who is facing more challenges than a seventeen year old should have to cope with. All Riley has to look forward to is failure: failure to become a demon trapper, failure to keep her father’s body safe, failure to revenge her father’s death. Riley’s bravery is demonstrated by continuing to try, even though she knows she will probably fail.
Riley frequently uses the phrase “Epic Fail” as a light-hearted description of those “crash and burn” incidents that tumble into the yawning gap between intention and execution.
I know that this is current teen slang and I don’t want to read too much into it, but it made think about our changing perception of failure.
These days, even teenagers know from experience that failure is not only an option, it’s an extremely likely outcome. They are surrounded by the failures of their parent’s generation: failed banks, failed marriages, failing school systems, failing governments.
This awareness is starting to show through in fiction.
In the pilot of “Glee” our quarterback-turned-glee-club-singer, Finn Hudson, is challenged about hanging out with losers. He says:
“Don’t you get it, man? We’re all losers! Everyone in this school! Hell, everyone in this town! Out of all the kids who graduate, maybe half will go to college, and two will leave the state to do it! I’m not afraid to be called a loser because I can accept that’s what I am. “
This view, I may fail, that may make me a loser in your book, but I’m still gonna try seems to capture something important about the mood of the times.
James Cameron, director of “Avatar” recently gave a TED lecture where he said:
“Failure has to be an option in art and exploration because it’s a leap of faith. In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.”
I’ve seen this speech quoted over and over and I think I understand its appeal.
People know that the game is rigged, so the House always wins in the end but they are recognizing the beautiful bravery of playing the hand you’re dealt because it’s the only hand you’ll ever have.
We have finally realized that NOT playing is the ultimate Epic Fail