Fail like an artist.

Salon #1

Setting the table for Salon #1.

Reclaiming Worstword Ho.

Business uses words like ‘creative and creativity’ a lot. There’s also innovation and, of course, failure too. While there is nothing new about failure in business—it probably is the most constant phenomena of modern commerce—the fetish for a certain kind of failure, in certain circles, has never been greater.

‘Failing better’ has been embraced and hailed by the best of them, yes we’re talking about you Sir Richard Branson and at surface level lines like; ‘bouncing back’, ‘figuring out what people want’ and ‘willing to take the risk’ are admirable.

However, the Silicon Valley version of failure—which has then been mindlessly replicated, duplicated, imitated and re-duplicated by millions all over the internet in memes and startup styled office walls in frames like; ‘fail fast, fail often’ is misleading.

While it’s true creatively motivated people and businesses do take risks; their risks and willingness to fail are strategic and based on research, practice, experimentation, knowledge, expertise and experience. A type of risk-taking not unlike the decisions painters, photographers, designers, writers, architects, choreographers, dancers, mathematicians, coders, musicians et al. make, as an intrinsic part of their practice. 

Risks built on the back of many hours, months and sometimes years in studios, labs and workshops, pushing, pulling, stretching, bending and breaking rules, paradigms, techniques and materials in pursuit of an idea or a way through.

Creativity by default includes risk taking, making productive mistakes and working through moments of failure.

The Silicon Valley version of failure is not of the creative kind. Rather it’s a version of failure in the pursuit of fast-success.

Like fast-fashion—synonymous with cheap, trendy garments that sample ideas from the runway and celebrity culture rapidly turning them around for quick sale in chain stores—fast-failure is a cavalier appropriation of deeper ideas and practices around experimentation and process, subverted to justify cutting corners in a race to the nearest venture capitalist.

One of Silicon Valley’s favourite fail-isms; ‘Fail again. Fail better’ is a case in point. The words are from Worstword Ho, (1983) a short novel by Nobel Prize winning author and playwright Samuel Beckett.

Worstword Ho, is a pared back piece of literary prose written in disjointed, stop-start language. Its unidentified speaker ruminates about struggling ‘on’ rather compulsively through all possible options until there are no more words. 

The entire stanza reads:

‘First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again.
Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.’

Quite different to the Valley version; “Fail again. Fail better”  as seen on T-shirts, mousepads, coffee mugs and startup walls. 

So how did Beckett’s unidentified, compulsive, protagonist become the voice of Silicon Valley? 

Timothy Ferriss, the serial entrepreneur, wrote a book in 2007 titledThe 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich included a morsel of Beckett’s prose ; “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ inferring the impossible can be achieved by ‘failing better.’ These words appeared alongside other self-help and time management slogans; ‘Poisonous people do not deserve your time’, ‘Compile your to-do list for tomorrow no later than this evening’, ‘Find your focus and you’ll find your lifestyle.’

Since then it has sold over a million copies and transformed Ferriss from Ivy league educated tech entrepreneur to global ‘life-hack-guru’ and ‘angel investor’. 

‘Fail again. Fail better’ was then picked up and repurposed in; What’s Stopping You: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You CanInnovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Great Customer Service and Fail Better!: The World’s Worst Marketers and What We Can Learn from Them.

Discussing his writing in the early 1960s, Beckett described a process of “getting down below the surface” towards “the authentic weakness of being”. Failure remained unavoidable because “whatever is said is so far from the experience” that “if you really get down to the disaster, the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable”. 

None of Beckett’s works will ever reach the sky-high sales figures of The 4-Hour Workweek or reach as many readers, not Waiting for Godot, not Endgame, not How It Is.

The table is set.