I am currently failing at getting a job.
The rejections are piling up in my inbox, the artful language of dismissal etched behind my eyelids:
“There was a very strong candidate pool!”
“Other applicants profiles more closely met the requirements!”
However, these toils are not something I should be scared of exposing. No. This will one day be my origin story – a wholesome tale of how I scrolled Indeed every day for three months, barely paying my journalistic dues with unpaid commissions before somehow, when all seemed lost, a golden-ticket opportunity landed in my lap, and the rest was history.
Fucking up has been re-marketed as something to embrace, rather than avoid. Think-pieces on why failing is good for us have been popping up steadily alongside TED Talks and books dedicated to the hidden benefits of not getting it right the first time. This is all supported by new research suggesting that the act of failing could be the secret to success later in our careers.
As a recent Stylist article points out, the research further backs up the benefits behind the idea of “failing forward” – an approach to set-back which says we should be making the most of our mistakes and seeing them as a chance to learn and progress.
This encouragement to display our war wounds feels very much like a rejection of the social media highlights reel culture every single one of us is familiar with and probably guilty of upholding – and that can’t be a bad thing to push back against. But like the brilliant article in The New Yorker this week, “getting real” about the #struggle is just another way of branding ourselves so that, as Carrie Batten writes, “struggle and candour become aspirational”, even fun.
If God loves a trier, the current culture seems to love a fuck up more. At least, one that redeems themselves with great success later on.
It’s easy to see how this “fetishization of failure”, as Clare Thorp called it in her Refinery29 piece, can turn from a source of empowerment to something insidious. She writes: “It’s only possible to frame failure as a positive once it’s in the rearview mirror and to have the platform to publicly share your failures usually means having gone on to achieve substantial success. Then, failure acts like an Instagram filter, making success look even more pleasing.”
Does adding the caveat that our success didn’t come easy make it more palatable? Are our achievements worth more if we disclose the hurdles we stumbled over before reaching them? I’m sceptical – not least in light of the fact that the parameters of failure aren’t made clear in these TED talks and inspirational podcasts.
Having your failures seen as an opportunity to create a charming parable about resilience is undoubtedly a privilege.
The viral tweet showing Phoebe Waller-Bridge holding her three (well-earned) Emmy’s alongside a less than glowing review of Fleabag with the caption “don’t let the fuckers get you down” was meant to be a rallying cry not to give up on your dreams. But it cannot be ignored that PWB has generations of wealth and thus incredible cultural capital as a result. Her kind of failure is not a universal one.
By assuming that behind every defeat is a platform for propulsion towards success, the very real and severe consequences of failure are ignored. I’m failing to get a job, but I still have a family that can support me.
I’m failing to get a job, but there are very few systemic barriers stopping me from doing so. I’m failing to get a job, but it’s still light-hearted enough for me to turn it into a column for the internet. Rather than be something that haunts and disrupts me, the white and class privilege I hold means this downfall will be something I can leverage as a secret weapon in my future success – but it’s time we realised that isn’t the case for everyone.
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