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On Failure

She knows there's no success like failure
And that failure's no success at all.

I was fifteen when I first heard these lyrics, although they had been written more than a decade earlier, during the miraculous mid-60s, when Dylan released an album every year, each one full of greatest hits. By the time I discovered his music he was playing in a large band with backing singers, and some of the immediacy and tenderness of his early love songs was lost from the music; but never from the words.

When we are young, questions of success and failure seem mostly for the future. We have temporary triumphs and setbacks in our teens, but they appear revisable. We might do better next year; or we might do worse. It is only as we grow older that a sense of permanence starts to attach to the self-evaluation of our lives. This was a success, that was a failure: we can move on, but we cannot re-calculate. This is no bad thing. To learn from our failures, we need to admit what has gone badly; to reprise our successes, we need to recognise what has gone well.

We are taught to think in these binary terms when we are very young: Did you pass or fail? Did you win or lose? Were you accepted or not? But over-reliance on them leads to an impoverished range of judgements about what really matters. It has taken me a long time to understand the truth of Dylan's words: success and failure are not the best ways of judging our place in the world.

The most straight-forward sense in which these words seem inadequate is when they are used in obviously – well, obvious to me – the wrong way. A colleague gets promoted ahead of me, when I was the better candidate; I still remember the autumn of 2004 for just that reason. A major prize for literature is awarded to someone's whose work I find uninteresting or unpersuasive; I'm not thinking of October 2016 here. Or, somebody gets elected to high office when they are clearly ill-suited to the role; add you own example, my list is too long for inclusion. These individuals are celebrated by society for their success, but in a just world they would not be. When I see who gets counted among the successful in our world I pause, and wonder what's so bad about failure.

In some cases - such as the artist who has no commercial success in their lifetime, and consequently lives an impoverished life, but whose work later adorns the walls of the best galleries and sells for millions of dollars at auction – the injustice is at least mitigated by the historical reassessment. I suspect - although I might be wrong - that Van Gogh would have gladly accepted his harsh life if he had been assured that posterity would value his art and his artistic vision; better that than be well thought of during his life but forgotten forever within a decade of his death. There are other cases –appointments to the Supreme Court, might be a topical example – where no amount of historical revisionism is likely to compensate for the damage caused by the success of an inappropriate and undeserving candidate.

That said, it's possible to imagine a world that – like a contested exam paper – has been re-marked. The worthy, once overlooked or pushed aside, are now up-graded; and all undeserving usurpers are cast back to obscurity, where they belong. In other words, I can imagine a world in which success and failure, in social and public contexts, were always justly achieved, in which merit and demerit were apportioned as and when they were truly deserved. This is, as I say, an imaginary world, close to the best-of-all-possible-worlds, one fit to be inherited by the meek. I have no expectation that I will ever see this world.

Nonetheless, even in a just world, there would still be reason to worry about the meaning of success and failure in our personal lives. This worry is connected to the passing of time, which, as Dylan taught us in the mid-70s, is like an ocean that ends at the shore, except when it's like a jet-plane that moves too fast. It's not just that as time passes my sense of what has and has not been successful changes; although this is often true. It's also that some things that I have done successfully, were successful, and could only ever have been successful, for a limited time. They could and should not have been perpetuated. For success sometimes evolves into failure of its own accord. This is a lesson that took me a long time to learn.

Many activities I have been engaged with over my life – jobs I have done, organisations and campaigns I have supported, friendships I have made, skills I have cultivated, pastimes I have invested in – have run their course and come to an end. Their ending is normal and natural, a sign that that a season has turned, that a skin has been shed. They are, as we nowadays say, a feature not a bug. What once worked well, what once proved interesting or useful, what once was challenging and invigorating, what once provided support and reassurance, at some point loses its necessity. The need has gone, the role is redundant.

There is an English saying that all political careers end in failure. This is a mistake. All political careers come to an end, for sure, but to end is not to fail. It has taken me a long time to learn that something going well for a while is not a reason to hope that it goes on for ever. There's no success like moving on. This is a hard lesson. But the obverse is also true. There are things I once considered failures, I now see were not so bad: lessons were learned, goals were achieved, friends were made, experience was accrued, all of which has benefitted me somewhat me in later life. Aging, properly done, is a process of re-evaluation. As the Nobel laureate once said: What's good is bad/ What's bad is good/ You'll find out when you reach the top/ You're on the bottom.

I am a work in progress. That has been my lesson. What worked well for me yesterday might not work well for me tomorrow. And what worked badly today, well, who knows? To say that in life the journey is more important than the destination, is a cliché, but that doesn't stop it being true. There is no moment of arrival, no attainment of perfection, no permanent success, no irredeemable failure. There is only the striving.

© Mark Hannam October 2018