Sometimes it seems our culture is obsessed with failure.
Economic crises can do that, what with the steady drip of bank failures and their opposite, the too big to fail. Witness the incredibly high stakes and nationalist angst from this year's Olympics, and all those dashed hopes from the failure to win a medal. Or the failure to advance at the World Cup (of 32 teams, only one isn't a failure at the end). It's also summer, so it's time for power failures.
My first pop-culture memory of the idea of failure is from Cool Hand Luke. I was maybe 10, watching one of those channels that plays movies on sunny Saturdays. As a child your parents shield you from the notion of failure. Everything you do is great: "You just try again and you will succeed!" They don't usually pair that with: "The alternative is abject failure. Which is just awful."
Like all good inventions, like all social struggles, like most great athletes, there are many small fails along the way to the big win.
In the movie there is a famous scene where the prison-camp warden smacks Paul Newman in the face over some rebellious sass, and attempts to rein in his emotions by droning the line, "What we've got here is … failure to communicate."
There really is nothing more chilling than the sarcastic understatement of a petty tyrant, so I suppose I take that baggage with me when I contemplate failure. The desperate sneering wrongness of it attempts to cling to your self-esteem like a bad smell. In other words, failure is shame.
This is bad news for new dads like me who are aware they are not perfect. I am going to fail at something when it comes to raising my son. That's an uncomfortable truth, but it would be sheer hubris to imagine it won't ever happen. It could be something big - maybe a failure to properly impart a survival skill he might need - or something as small as a look of disappointment when I don't know how to help him with a problem. That would be devastating to me, and perhaps plant the seed that maybe dad isn't a superhero.
I have failed at some things in my life: classes in school, relationships that were important to me, job interviews. I hated it every time, and at my lowest moments I can remember the stomach-churning, sweat-popping anxiety of those failures vividly.
But something funny happened in the Internet age. Failure became comical. There's a blog called Epic Fail that is just one of the more popular forums to express the meme of "fail," which is usually a one-word caption attached to a photo or a video. Guy shielding his eyes from the sun while wearing his hat backward? Fail. Anything inadvertently shaped like genitals? Fail. Picture of your kid with a handgun? Parenting fail.
Admittedly Internet humour can be puerile, and sometimes things that pop up as "fail" are utterly mean-spirited.
Amazingly though, cutting the "ure" off the word failure made it funnier, and took the edge of shame off the mocking exasperation. And best of all, fails happen to everyone, all the time. You could go blind trying to read or watch every fail. Twitter fails so often it has a beloved mascot that appears when the site is overloaded, the "fail whale," with a fan club and many parodies.
Before this, the only way failure was redeemable was if it was noble, the Icarus-like result of a wild ambition. This is epic fail of a different sort: Tragic and even inspiring failure. Howard Hughes's incredible aviation folly, the Spruce Goose? Spectacular failure, but quite a thing to watch it fly that one time. How about the greatest failure/success ever, Columbus discovering the New World by accident?
To fail is the opposite of not trying, and with hindsight can be viewed as a step toward getting it right. Steve Jobs co-founded Apple, but he was also fired by its board in the 1980s. Rehired more than 10 years later, his return has been an unmitigated win for the company.
I suspect one day my son will appreciate both ideas: The everyday "laugh it off, put it online and carry on" sort of fails and the more serious "take the lesson - this isn't something you want to do again" type of failures. Like all good inventions, like all social struggles, like most great athletes, there are many small fails along the way to the big win. Somehow all that failure becomes success, which has to mean that in some way it was never failure at all.
For this I am enormously grateful. I doubt I will be crippled by a fear of giving my son horrible, if well-intentioned, advice that harms him in a material or even immaterial way. I think as long as I keep trying there won't be any corrosive shame attached to small or big fails along the way.
For me, the best-case scenario is that by not being afraid to fail him, my son won't be afraid to try and fail in his own life. If that happens, I'll consider those inevitable failures part of an overall modest win.
Shane Dingman is a Globe and Mail Web editor and lives in Toronto.Report Typo/Error