Redefining Failure

By Baird, Julia | Newsweek, September 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Redefining Failure


Baird, Julia, Newsweek


Byline: Julia Baird

Maybe Willy Loman wasn't a loser.

We've spent more than 60 years dissecting Willy Loman, the character artfully sketched by Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman. Willy is, perhaps, America's consummate loser, a failure to his family. But if you can bear with me for one moment, imagine he lived in current times, not amid the postwar prosperity of 1949. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house--he had just made the last mortgage payment--and had a wife and two children. Today he'd be a survivor.

Has our view of failure softened since Willy Loman's day? In a country with a level of unemployment so high that it is likely to determine the outcome of the midterm elections, and where promotions, bonuses, and retirement savings seem like relics, failure is something many of us are wrestling with right now. But if we begin to accept that success is not a simple, upward career trajectory, this economic crisis may not just reduce the stigma of being sacked but transform the way we think of failing. Shocking as it sounds, failure can be a good thing.

It's true, recessions can wreck self-esteem. In a nation built on success and a gloriously entrepreneurial spirit, the prospect of failure can make people fearful--and shameful--even when it is not their fault. "There is a crash in every generation," wrote Arthur Miller in 2005, just before he died, "sufficient to mark us with a kind of congenital fear of failure." Miller was commenting on a wonderful book by historian Scott Sandage called Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Sandage believes Willy Loman was a success. But the message of the play, he says, is that "if you are not continuing upwards, if you level off, you have to give up. You might as well not live."

We did not always believe this. In his book, Sandage argues that America's ideas about failure were formed between 1819 and 1893, as busts followed a series of speculative booms. Before then, failure was not associated with individual identity. It just happened to you. Bankruptcy was thought to come from overreach--living excessively--not from lack of ambition. By the end of the 19th century, says Sandage, failure had gone from being a professional mishap to "a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Redefining Failure
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.