The Success of Failure

In Joe DePaolo's fine profile of talk radio host Mike Francesa, published earlier this year at SB Nation Longform, this struck me:

“When you find something you’re good at, stick with it,” Francesa says – voicing a personal philosophy that runs counter to [Bill] Simmons’s recent career developments.

“I think what happens in our business is that people get to a certain level, and then they’re like, ‘OK. I have to go prove I can do this now.’ Why? Why can’t you just stay there and do it really well? When you do something well, why can’t you stay there, and perfect it, and prove that you can do it really well?”

Red Smith only wrote a handful of magazine pieces. He never wrote a biography, never wrote a novel. He didn't have the time and he wasn't interested in writing a book. His contemporary W.C. Heinz, however, was a columnist, a magazine writer, a novelist, and a biographer. I don't think one is better than the other—I admire people who know themselves and hone their craft at the thing they do best. But I also appreciate people who push themselves and risk failure.

But what is failure?

Here is William Faulkner on the origins of The Sound and the Fury, one of his most acclaimed novels:

It began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book. And then I realized the symbolism of the soiled pants, and that image was replaced by the one of the fatherless and motherless girls climbing down the rainpipe to escape from the only home she had, where she had never been offered love or affection or understanding.

I had already begun to tell the story through the eyes of the idiot child, since I felt that it would be more effective as told by someone capable only of knowing what happened, but not why. I saw that I had not told the story that time. I tried to tell it again, the same story through the eyes of another brother. That was still not it. I told it for a third time through the eyes of the third brother. That was still not it. I tried to gather the pieces together and fill in the gaps by making myself the spokesman. It was still not complete, not until fifteen years after the book was published, when I wrote as an appendix to another book the final effort to get the story told and off my mind, so that I myself could have some peace from it. It’s the book I feel tenderest towards. I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again.

From the book, Faulkner at Nagano:

Q: Mr. Faulkner, you once mentioned Mr. Hemingway's world as being narrow; would you please enlighten us?

Faulkner: I thought that he found out early what he could do and he satyed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he really could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure...failure to me is the best. To try something you can't do, because it's too much [to hope for], but still to try it and fail, then try it again. That to me is success.

And from a letter Faulkner wrote to Malcolm Cowley in 1944:

As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world…I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.

Lastly, from an essay Pat Jordan wrote in 1990:

"Vince Lombardi said, 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' And then he died of cancer, a loser in the end as we all must be, betrayed by a lifetime goal that can only lead to failure.

Of course, Vince Lombardi was never a gambler's son. He never understood the pleasure of loss. How loss always propels a man of character to strive again, and not to yield, in a way that victory seldom does. Which is why I have always believed Lombardi missed the point.

Winning doesn't build character; losing and refusing to quit does. A man's reach should exceed his grasp—if he's a man of character. And if it does, then it's inevitable that he will fail. He will never win every race, never write the greatest novel. Still, he has to play. Playing, not winning, is everything. It's what I learned as a gambler's son. Perfection, playing, and the possibility of loss.

Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

Something to chew on.

[Photo Via: Life]