Pushcart XLI: David J. Unger, “Fail Again” from The Point #10

FAILURE FESTIVAL is an invitation. An invitation for you to help us engage failure in a public setting. We need you because we don’t know how to do it on our own. We don’t know whether to barrel towards it, argue with it, or sit on its lap. We don’t know if we should give it keys to our apartment, or ask it to apologize. Sometimes we cower in the corner. Sometimes we lie down and try to convince it that we are asleep… or dead.
We want to know what failure reveals about our world that success masks. We do not expect easy answers. We may find none at all. This is a celebration and acknowledgement of the fact that when things inevitably don’t go as we plan, somehow, we must adapt. Please help.

Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ve learned, in the past three years, to embrace failure, mostly through the influence of a bunch of math teachers who are convinced if you aren’t getting things wrong, you aren’t learning anything, and that learning to tolerate frustration and persevere is more important than memorizing trig identities. One thing I can always succeed at is failing at math, so I’ve finally found a way to, um, succeed?

This isn’t a unique approach. Every writer, every dreamer who ever poured out her heart on paper knows at least one line from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, a line celebrated in 2014 by Trinity College in Dublin with “a free exhibition of beautiful, heroic and instructive failures” in its Science Gallery. And just last month, MIT’s Technology Review published a story on Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman – and PhD candidate in math – John Urschel, who says “In math, you have to be comfortable with failure.” And the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm 500 Startups is all about failure: “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,’ says [founding partner Dave] McClure. ‘We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.’”

Before we were all about “winning”, failure was a recognized route to success.

So I was really eager to read this piece, a journalistic look at the Failure Festival presented in Boulder, CO back in 2014.

I got a bit lost in the description of the festival itself. Apparently it was a three day audience-participation dance-and-performance-art thing. Garbage bags served as ponchos, tomatoes were provided for throwing and carrots for carving. It was probably much better in person than it was to read about. But I must admit, sadly, the piece didn’t work for me. But if an article about a failure festival fails, does that make it a success?

6 responses to “Pushcart XLI: David J. Unger, “Fail Again” from The Point #10

  1. You would think that since I blog all the time about rejection, I’d have liked this piece better. But I’m with you. It was one of those things where they took something cool and had to go and lame it up by normalizing it. Failure loses its effectiveness if it’s not longer a source of private rage and shame. I don’t want to be part of some terrible corporate “lessons learned” pitch. I want my failure to turn me bitter until I do something great with the bitterness. I don’t want to go to a festival to celebrate my inadequacy.

    • Back in the American Idol years (ok, so I watched a few episodes, go ahead, laugh), or for that matter during any talent-based reality tv show, the winner would invariably say, “Dreams do come true if you just keep trying.” This always struck me as an incredibly stupid thing to say, since there were 10,000 to 100,000 losers whose dreams did NOT come true.

      I was wondering how this piece would strike you.

      And I’ve been looking for a not-very-public place to tell you something: Meatloaf.

  2. Well, you’re not alone. While we were drinking that night, I kept calling him “Meatball” by accident, and I thought if I wrote it down, it would be funny, like I was trying to sound like an unhip dad who can’t say his kids’ heroes’ names right or something. Your reaction justifies what my wife said, which was that nobody would get that I was going for that. Sometimes, I just try things.

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