One of my esteemed colleagues recently finished a nice piece on careers in science by quoting Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The sentiment is entirely laudable: you’ll get things wrong, but don’t be deterred – every time you attempt something and fail, you get a little better. Or something like that.
Yet whenever I see Beckett put to use this way, I can’t help thinking “Hmphrgh”. This is Beckett you’re quoting. Yes, Samuel Beckett. Does anyone believe that he was ever going to write a soundbite of fist-punching, keep-on-goin’ self-motivation?
The line comes, of course, from Beckett’s late work Worstward Ho. I say of course because that’s commonly acknowledged, but I wonder how many have seen or read Worstward Ho. It is, shall we say, opaque even by the standards of a master of opacity. Dense, you might say. Difficult. Now, I love Beckett and find him an intensely funny writer, but funny because of a wry bleakness that makes Will Self seem like a bouncing-bunny optimist. It’s a braver soul than me who will pronounce with certainty on what Beckett was driving at with “Fail better”, but I will bet a pint of Guinness that he did not intend this to be a boiled-down version of that pious little primary-school mantra “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
It’s wise not to get too po-faced and spluttery about this misappropriation, not least because Beckett would doubtless have appreciated the joke. We get the memes we seem to need, like the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno or the misuse of “deconstruct”, and I’d be a sad fool indeed to think that a blog comment is going to make the slightest difference in squelching them.
But it’s sad that the irony here is so seldom recognized. Indeed, what seems particularly sad is that the opportunity to take a more nuanced view of failure is bypassed by this bit of repurposed wisdom.
Mark O’Connell has a great piece on Slate, called “How Samuel Beckett became Silicon Valley’s life coach.” He says “What has happened here, I suppose, is that a small shard of a fragmentary and difficult work of literature has been salvaged from the darkness of its setting, sanded and smoothed of the jagged remnants of that context”. The result, O’Connell says, is that Beckett is pressed “into service as a kind of highbrow motivational thought-leader.” But in truth “his attitude toward success and failure was more complex and perverse than this interpretation suggests.” That’s surely true.
What, then, was that attitude? Maggi Dawn has a nice interpretation on her blog: “there is a sense in which claiming always to fail is comedy not tragedy. It releases us from the lie of success, frees us from the obligation to adopt its thin veneer, and allows us to do whatever it is we do for its own sake.”
My own suspicion is that Beckett was hinting at the glorious tragedy of our own self-delusion, in which we tell ourselves that we will eventually transform failure into success, and that the world really cares whether we do or not. We are not Steve Jobs but Harold Steptoe (and if you’re too young to get that allusion, you can thank me later for broadening your horizons), doomed forever to be making pathetic plans for betterment in a kind of frenzied desperation, forever glimpsing our cherished goal only to have it snatched from our grasp by the realities of our sad and miserable existence. And perhaps to realise that our only real hope of solace lies in accepting that Albert will always thwart our efforts, so that we might ask well celebrate failure and get drunk with the surly old sod.
But imagine trying to sell that in Silicon Valley.