Stop Fetishising Failure and Success

famous-failures.jpg

Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.

The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our,  humanity.

Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered  with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.

It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.

For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.

There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.

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4 thoughts on “Stop Fetishising Failure and Success

  1. Chester Draws

    In any case they have made up many of the “failures”.

    Bill Gates left college willingly, he didn’t “drop out”, and his grades were fine. The real message of his college career is that much college education is wasted. Hardly what most teachers want on their walls. Oh, and that it really helps to have wealthy parents.

    Einstein was obviously clever from an early age, although mostly in Maths. I don’t think he was ever expelled from school, though he was difficult — because he was so clever that school bored him. Not because he was any sort of failure. And it helps to have wealthy parents.

    Ford’s first businesses weren’t major failures either. He was never bankrupted or anything like that. The second he founded went on to become Cadillac. The third had cash flow issues but was the eventual source of Ford.

    Now Donald Trump has had spectacular failures in a way that Ford and Gates never did. Why isn’t he on the poster.

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  2. jddunsany

    A great article.

    I’ve been troubled by this nonsense for some time. While I understand the importance of encouraging children to persevere, the overly simplistic way in which success and failure are defined and the inadvertent way education is denigrated in the process always seemed counter-productive to me.

    Plus, working in a Catholic school, I’m always mildly astonished that St Peter never makes the list… 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 24th March – Friday 31st March – Douglas Wise

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