“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Samuel Beckett
I have heard the end of this quote bandied about as an axiom recently, “Fail better.” At first this sounds smart, even right. Yet within it rests the humorous possibility—one can fail at “failing better.” This makes sense. There are moments when failures compound themselves, when lessons are not learned and the failure’s fallout is larger than necessary.
America has a complex cultural relationship with failure. First, there is a clear vein in the American bloodstream of failure aversion. Think the pop-psychological phenomena that is the Strength-Finder mentality. I am going to take a quick test, clarify what I am good at, and then stick with it. My strengths let me know where the road to success is shortest and easiest. In fact, the road to success is already mostly built, one just needs to realize it.
Then is another cultural emphasis, the pro-failure emphasis. The Atlantic has recently written a piece on this, Losing is the New Winning. A growing theme in the self-help and leadership education industry is the importance of failure in one’s development. In the words of Daft Punk, failure is what can make you “harder, better, faster, stronger.” The article of course rightly points out the pitfalls of this “failure-fetish.”
“In real life, of course, failure is sometimes just that: failure. Truth is, the current catalogue of pro-failure literature does not celebrate failure in all forms. We like failure when, and only when, it ends in victory. “Lots of people never achieve their goals; they do not achieve their dreams, even though they have worked really hard and prepared themselves,” points out Scott Sandage, a historian and the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. “To believe that failure is only a valuable lesson if it leads eventually to triumph really isn’t embracing failure at all. It’s crossing your fingers behind your back that eventually you’re going to succeed.” Victory and loss are often beyond our control, whatever we might like to think about our ability to triumph over circumstance.”
The failure-fetish is misguided for many of the same reasons that failure aversion is–both emerging from a combination of watered down pop-psychology, individualistic anthropology, and warped conceptions of success. However, this doesn’t discount the reality that certain forms of failure are an important learning tool. Failure is not necessarily the opposite of the good, but can be part of our journey towards to the good. Maybe one could say that the road to “the better,” and not necessarily success, is covered with the potholes of failure.
If “fail better” is not just another workplace cliché, what are the practices that might enable one to fail well? What does good failure look like? At the very least, failing well involves understanding the failure. Where did it come from? What did it involve? How does it fit within the communities I am a part of? What role did my beliefs or habits play in creating it? Who can help me avoid it in the future?
To fail well, we should exegete our failures. The habits and ingredients of good Scriptural exegesis—spending time reading the Scriptural text, re-reading the text, getting a feel for the genre and structure, understanding its context, the history of its interpretation, and discussing it in community, revising and refining our interpretation again and again—provide an idea of what it means to fail well. Discussing our failures, even dissecting them in conversation with others might not be the most enjoyable exercise—but that doesn’t mean it is a undesirable one.
Just as it takes a specific set of activities and habits to read Scripture well, the same applies to reading our lives, both the joys and the difficulties, the laments and the celebrations, the failures and the successes.