Why we should be honest about failure

Janan Ganesh:

On a long-haul flight, Can You Ever Forgive Me? becomes the first film I have ever watched twice in immediate succession. Released last month in Britain, it recounts the (true) story of Lee Israel, a once-admired, now-marginal writer who resorts to literary forgery to make the rent on her fetid New York hovel. Her one friend is himself a washout who, as per the English tradition, passes off his insolvency as bohemia. Lee pleads with her agent to answer her calls and, in the rawest scene, confesses her crime with a wistful pang for the success it brought her.

There are serviceable jokes (including the profane farewell between the two friends) but the film is ultimately about failure: social, financial, romantic, professional. Put it down to the lachrymose effects of air travel — a phenomenon that has no definitive explanation — but I found the film unusually affecting. Or perhaps it was the shock of seeing failure addressed so unsentimentally, and from so many angles.

Failure — not spectacular failure, but failure as gnawing disappointment — is the natural order of life. Most people will achieve at least a little bit less than they would have liked in their careers. Most marriages wind down from intense passion to a kind of elevated friendship, and even this does not count the roughly four in 10 that collapse entirely. Most businesses fail. Most books fail. Most films fail.

You would hope that something so endemic to the human experience would be constantly discussed and actively prepared for. Instead, what we hear about is failure as a great “teacher”, or as a staging post before eventual success. There are management books about “failing forward”. There are educational methods that teach children the uses of failure. Consult an anthology of quotations about the subject, and it is not just the Paulo Coelho types who sugar-coat it. Churchill, Edison, Capote, at least one Roosevelt: people who should know better almost deny the existence of failure as anything other than a character-building phase.

There are good intentions behind all this. There is also a lot of naivety and squeamishness. For many people, failure will be just that, not a nourishing experience or a bridge to something else. It will be a lasting condition, and it will sting a fair bit.