In Mauritius for SFFR-Africa meeting
A few years ago, I happened to be leafing through the pages of my then boyfriend’s GQ magazines. Admittedly, not my typical read. To my surprise, I found an article that left a permanent impression on me. I wanted to tear off the page and make many, many copies of it to distribute to friends and family. I never did. I did however permanently ‘borrow’ the magazine which unfortunately is lying somewhere in my mother’s house in Kikuyu, Kenya right now while I’m sitting on my bed somewhere in down town Chicago.
I have searched for this article for the longest and finally today, eureka!
A lot of people have given speeches about failure recently especially at college commencement speeches, but there’s something so captivating and fresh about Tony Parson’s account. Plus he did write this before it became cliché in my opinion. I was so impressed by it that after reading the piece, I went and bought every book ever written by him but that’s a story for another day. For now, here’s Tony Parsons article published in GQ Magazine British Edition I believe in the January 2010 edition:
The Secret of My Failure:
The secret of my failure was that I thought success was permanent. Like a lot of men, I had reached a sweet-scented peak that I thought was mine for life. Then one foul day I fell into the pit of failure. And then come, oh, ten years when the postman became the most important person in my diminished life, because his footsteps outside our shabby little flat brought the possibility of some paltry cheque.
Ten years of fretting about money. Ten years of waking up in the middle of the night, wondering where the next mortgage payment was coming from. Ten years to contemplate where it had all gone wrong. And ten years dreading that inevitable moment at a party when someone asked, “And what are you doing these days?”
The funny thing is, I was working like a dog, taking any job that came my way, because failures can’t be choosers. But it didn’t make any difference. All successful men work hard, but so do the vast majority of failures.
I had left my first job in journalism, as a staff writer on NME, with great expectations. I was 25 years old and for the previous three years I had been writing cover stories for the biggest music weekly in the world. I was quite popular—but it was only when I left NME that I discovered I was only popular with spotty, high-IQ misfits who were saving up for their first pair of bondage trousers. Nobody else had heard of me. Nobody else wanted to know.
In rapid succession I was married, a father, divorced, and a single father. There had never been much money—Julie Burchill and I used to take bottles back to get the tube fare to work—but now there was none. For a single man, failure is hard to take. For a family man, especially a broken family man, it is poison.
Here is how failure finds you. First there is a creeping sense of dread and then suddenly the sky falls down.
“How did you go bankrupt?” asks a character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
“Two ways,” comes the reply. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
That is how your failure hits you. Gradually and then suddenly. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first—the increasing struggles with money, the nagging sense of things not going how you had expected, how you like, and then the terrible realization that the world can get along very well without you—and finally disaster. The bills that can’t be paid. The career in the ditch. The relationship in ruins. Your health shot.
Jay McInerney uses that quote from Hemingway’s novel at the start of his own masterpiece, Bright Lights, Big City. Widely considered to be—with Bonfire of The Vanities—one of the ultimate zeitgeist Eighties books, Bright Lights, Big City is really the story of a young man failing: chemically, professionally, economically, personally, socially. All the ways we can fail.
For all its references to Bolivian marching powder and clubs and girls with shaven heads, Bright Lights, Big City is really the best novel ever written about coping with failure, and taking the first steps to recovery.
The book ends with the protagonist trading his sunglasses for some freshly baked bread, down on his knees, stuffing it into his mouth and trying to keep it down. That’s what fighting failure feels like. It feels like it might just be beyond you. It turns your stomach.
I felt that way for ten years. From the middle of my twenties until the middle of my thirties, I was that man on his knees, struggling to keep the fresh bread in his stomach. My problem was that the only formal training I had ever received was how to take drugs with rock stars.
And there was no great shining moment when I felt failure was behind me. After ten years of slog, things started to turn the corner. There was money, there was opportunity, there was the ebbing away of anxiety. But when you have known failure—real, kick-in-the-bollocks failure —it never really leaves you, and you take nothing for granted again.
Things change. The new boss doesn’t like you as much as the old boss. There are tensions in the office. You are overlooked for a promotion, a blowjob at the office party. You get sacked. Or you feel hemmed in, unfulfilled, and frustrated. You move on. And stumble. And fall. And fall.
Every heroic myth has failure built in to the narrative. We think of Ali with his jaw broken in the first fight against Joe Frazier, Sinatra in the dog days with no recording contract, Christ on the cross in his moment of doubt and pain. But we all know how the story ends—that Ali will meet Frazier again in Manila, that Sinatra has Capitol Records and From Here to Eternity around the corner, and on the third day the stone will roll back, and eternal life awaits.
Great men overcome failure and it makes them greater than ever. But when you can’t pay your gas bill you don’t feel like Muhammad Ali or Frank Sinatra or Jesus Christ. You feel more like Mr. Bean.
They say that failure isn’t fatal. But it doesn’t feel that way when you are in the middle of it. Failure feels like it will kill you. Failure is the dirty bomb in the life of the modern male, as undeniable as serious illness, a condition it closely resembles.
Looking on the bright side, my ten long years of failure didn’t kill me. Somehow the bills got paid. I never went bankrupt. Although what happened to me was personally devastating, and not what I would have wanted, some people might even consider it a kind of measly, modest success. I never had a boss, or had to go to an office, or had to wear a suit and tie when I didn’t want to. I kept working at the job I love. One man’s abject failure is another man’s bad decade at the office. Failure is relative.
There are a thousand ways for a man to feel like a failure, but nothing cuts to the bone quite as acutely as professional failure, because so much of our self-esteem is derived from what we do for a living. So how to fight failure? Stay fit. Work hard. Then work harder. Then work better. No drinking to excess over the age of 30. No drugs at all over the age of 25. Never let your vices become your day job. Never get lazy. Never get fat. And never ever bet against yourself.
There is no shame in failing. Great men have spent a lifetime on their knees. In his mid-twenties, Orson Welles was cinema’s favourite son. Then came decades of development hell. “Something always turns up when you are down and out,” said Wells. “Usually the noses of your friends.”
By the end, the man who made Citizen Kane was making sherry commercials. But a failure? I don’t think so.
“A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” said Hemingway, who changed American literature but ended up one sunny Sunday morning, aged 61, with a double-barreled 12-bore shotgun pressed against the roof of his mouth. They say his wife Mary was woken by two shots that were almost, but not quite, simultaneous. But a failure? As time goes by, Hemingway’s life seems more like a triumph, even though the colossus was torn down at the end by the nightmare-ticket failure of body and mind.
Hemingway believed any story followed to the very end would be a story of failure, and perhaps that is how we need to think of it. Failure—financial, professional, personal—is not a cruel act of God, but an inevitable fluctuation in life’s fortunes. You will get sacked. You will get sick. You will run out of money and luck. You will get your heart pulped by your true love. Failure in one shape or another will get you, because it gets all of us sooner or later.
Failure hardens you. This is a good thing. You get sacked and you find out who your friends are. You get your heart broken and you learn that you give it away too easily. You get sick and you realize that you took your flesh and blood for granted in your carefree, drug sozzled youth.
The big problem with failure is that it is so time-consuming. When you are worried about money your mind has no room for anything else. When the red bills are on your doormat you find it hard to lift your eyes to the stars. But failure is the best education money can’t buy. It will ultimately do you a lot more good than going to “uni” for three years.
Perhaps real and lasting success is impossible without the experience of real, grown-up failure. Until you have lost that job and lost that woman and watched your self-esteem running down the drain you will never truly have lift-off.
In the school of hard knocks, genuine grinding failure—the kind where people wonder what happened to you, and so do you—is like a double first from Oxford. Surviving failure makes you a man. It makes you run twice as fast as the competition, it makes you twice as hungry, it makes you twice as hard. Once you had your nose rubbed in dirt—when you have spent hours beyond counting waiting for the postman to bring some pathetic little check—then the competition has no chance. The safe little flight plans of your rival’s life—from school to university to office—are no match for what you have endured.
When it is happening to you, failure feels like a beating. It literally feels like you are on the sharp end of a kicking. And as anyone who has taken a good hiding will tell you, it is not the pain that hurts. It is the humiliation. Failure is like that. You taste it
But it leaves some steel in your spine. It leaves a chip of ice in your heart. It makes you ready for anything. You always remember what failure felt like. And you remember it every day of your working life.
How dumb was I in my twenties? This dumb: when failure came looking for me, I was shocked. When I lost the job; when the money ran out; when serious illness found my family; when I was wearing my Harrington jacket to divorce court—I was stunned that any of this could possibly happen to me. “Nothing bad ever happened to me before,” I said to my mother, as though that meant I truly believed nothing bad could ever happen to me. That’s why it took me ten long years to climb back. I didn’t see failure coming. And I honestly thought it never would.
Don’t be like me. Bounce back fast. Expect failure to hit you hard somewhere along the line. But I promise you this—if you lose the job then you will find a better job. If you lose the girl then you will find a better girl. And if you lose your health then you might learn to stop putting rubbish into your system.
Embrace failure. Make it your greatest ally. Because at the very moment they all think you are finished, your success is assured.
NOTE: Seems this article was revised and published again this year. You can find the ‘new’ version here: http://bit.ly/1bMi57c