I don’t know if these are actually titles of pieces talking about failing and overcoming it but they easily could be. These could be articles in your very stream here on Medium when you click back to the home page. They infect our social media feeds and signal to us the bright side — even the joy — of failure.
The rise of social media and open blogging platforms like WordPress and Medium make these possible. Before these platforms, you wouldn’t hear about other people’s failures as much because media outlets figured people would rather spend time reading about the successful, the beautiful, the sexy, the rich, and the powerful. Who wants to read about a guy who’s coffee business failed? Who wants to read about the girl whose marriage fell apart? Who wants to spend time hearing about failure?
Turns out a lot of people do.
The Bright Side: Failure Isn’t That Bad
There’s a virtue to the proliferation of this genre — it teaches us that failure really isn’t that bad. After 12–16 years of school teaching us that failure must be avoided at all costs and that failure at a given venture = failure of the individual in question, articles recounting stories of failing and turning out okay are a welcome reprieve.
Turns out, life is full of failure. Lots of people we think of as successful have failed in previous ventures and may even be failures in other areas of their lives.
Before the mass-popularization of pieces that highlight the failure of common people, the closest equivalent you could find would be articles talking about how many times famous people failed before hitting it big. These are obviously intended to inspire. “If Richard Branson can fail this many times over, you can too!”
The primal risk-aversion internalized by the fear of failure is, ironically, the dangerous part. What started as an evolutionary mechanism to keep our simple monkey brains from falling off a cliff or signaling to the tribe that we are incompetent and should be left behind in times of emergency has made people weak and flaccid. It’s led to several generations of people — especially since the relative wealth boom of the Industrial Revolution — who are more interested in safety and risk-reduction than they are in trying new, interesting things that may bring with them the chance of failure.
Instead of pushing the envelope to do everything from finish audacious building ventures ahead of schedule to traversing the solar system, from launching a multi-million dollar venture to launching an etsy business, a lot of people would rather settle for a paycheck.
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
So these feel-good articles and blog pieces about how you can recover from failure have a huge bright side — they assure us that if you do give into that temptation to try something different and scary, chances are, you’ll turn out okay. The bottom in the United States really isn’t that low (especially when compared to anywhere else for the rest of human history) and it is rare that somebody stays at the bottom.
The Dark Side: The Rise of Failure Porn and Losing the Nuance
Still, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable when we see these articles shared around on Facebook or twitter. Their intention is presumably good, but the fact that entire genre has popped up from this little thesis is disturbing. At its most insidious, we’ve seen the development of the genre offailure porn — a genre people enjoy to make themselves feel better about their own failures, oftentimes rooted in Schadenfreude.
If we sit back and bask in others’ failures so much that we begin to fetishize failure, the element of failure that our monkey brains understood and understood well starts to die off.
The biggest danger here is losing sight of the fact that failure sucks and it should be avoided as much as possible. Failing sets us back from the progress we could have made in other areas — opportunity cost is felt most when risky ventures fail — and can be psychologically jarring. We see articles and stories about people recovering from failure so easily that it seems less-necessary to avoid.
Levi Morehouse, CEO and founder of Ceterus, put it well in a discussion on this topic:
Failing is not the end, but it it awful. Choose the right wall, climb it well, push through challenges, and succeeding is better than starting a wall and quitting and trying a new one repeatedly until hopefully succeeding.
Avoid it but do not fear it. Falling happens to everyone, those who avoid it but do not fear it are best positioned for ultimate success. Failing is giving up on a goal, avoid this at all costs.Failing does not happen to everyone. It is not the end but it is worse than falling.
We lose an important nuance of failure when we indulge in these articles — fear of failure should not keep you from trying something, but failure should still be avoided as much as reasonably possible.
Understand that failure isn’t really that bad (especially today, for what most people are trying), but also know that failure is rooted in the decision to give up.
Don’t let the fetishization of failure make you give up before you otherwise would. If you’re going to fetishize anything, fetishize success so that more people strive towards that.
Kudos to Levi Morehouse for discussing this topic with me on multiple occasions and being a breath of fresh air on this topic.