Redefining Failure

Article excerpt

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. …