Transforming Failure

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

From here, the meme will spread.This quote is inscribed upon a brass plaque outside the Boardmore Theatre at Cape Breton University, where I work. The author is Samuel Beckett, the fatalistic Franco-Irish playwright whose greatest claims to fame are writing Waiting for Godot and taxiing a young André the Giant to school in the back of his lorry.

The complete quote is: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”—in case that clears it up. Actually, it’s hard to justify separating the quote from its source at all, since the entire text—a 1983 prose-poem novella called Worstward Ho, and one of Beckett’s final works—just kind of unspools with the same cheeky yet depressing semi-sequiturs, with no clear stopping points. So while it might not seem too out of place on a theatre wall (coming from a playwright and everything), I’d day its provenance, context, and content form a unified front, sworn at all costs to keep the quote from ever finding its way onto, say, a poster of a kitten.

Yet, in the topsy-turvy twenty-first century, “Fail again fail better” has become an unlikely inspirational meme. Part of it might be due to the book by Pema Chödrön, the Shambhala Buddhist philosopher who happens to live in Gambo Abbey, on the other side of Cape Breton (coincidence? Or has Chödrön seen a show or two at the Boardmore?). But it’s apparently been adopted far more broadly than that, tattooed onto the arms of tennis pros and spouted at Silicon Valley summits. If you do a Google image search for the phrase, you’ll see it’s been formatted into desktop wallpaper by hundreds of armchair typographers, some of whom have tinkered with the punctuation to make the bleak sentiment seem a bit more self-helpful (as in, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter! Fail again…fail better!”).

(Seriously, if you have a few more minutes to spare, and you aren’t provoked into seizures by wretched font choices, do this Google image search. One picture involves a shaky, all-caps font with Xs for periods and an exploding firework—in black and white. It’s delightfully dreadful.)

Perhaps I’m the one reading bleakness into it, although I’m familiar enough with Sam Beckett’s oeuvre to say that bleakness was virtually his form of punctuation. What makes this quote so popular? Maybe it’s the placement of the word “better” at the end that softens the impact, nearly inverting the staggering body-blow repetition of “fail.” Maybe “better” is simply such a warm-fuzzy word that it eclipses the objective meaning of the phrase—to “fail better,” as in “to fail more spectacularly.” Or maybe, if one is scanning fast enough, the entire quote slides into Sesame Street sentiment: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”? Am I jaded enough to believe that people no longer even bother to read the entirety of an eight-word quote? (Obviously not, or I wouldn’t be aiming for 1,000 words per post. Anybody still here?)

“Fail better” was new to me the first time I crossed the threshold of the Boardmore Theatre, and I remember feeling vaguely dispirited when I realized it was the brazen motto of the venue where I’d be spending much of my creative time from that point forward. The phrase had been chosen by the venue’s namesakes, Elizabeth and Harry Boardmore, local trailblazers whom I never had the privilege to meet, as they’d retired before my wife and I came to CBU, to teach and direct shows in their shadows. Their reputations certainly did not connote failure: they moved to Cape Breton before there was any theatre on the island, aside from a few lingering echoes of the vaudeville boom from 30 years before. They pioneered the production of high-minded theatre in Cape Breton, and jointly created a Drama program that produced some of Canada’s most acclaimed theatre practitioners—Daniel MacIvor, Bryden MacDonald, Ron Jenkins, and more. The Boardmore’s mission was a resounding success, not a Beckettian absurdist tragedy.

But then again… all the photos of the Boardmores I’ve seen have been fraught with tension and despair. Liz looks stern and perpetually dissatisfied, as if the best efforts of the local talent pool leave a bad taste on her cigarette-stained lips. And Harry looks haunted, uncomfortable in his own skin, eager to plunge back into an unknowable mental landscape. It is possible I’m reading into these photos; I know that Liz and Harry split up after founding the Drama program, and I’ve heard rumours that Harry was closeted. Regardless of their personal struggles, I also can’t help putting myself in their shoes, inventing a cultural tradition, virtually from scratch, within a staunchly blue-collar community. Successes can feel like failures if they plateau after a while.

Slowly, I started to embrace the quote, as it applied to my new career. I realized the obvious: the Boardmore Theatre is a learning facility and a community theatre. Failure is inevitable, it’s part of the process, and it’s valuable to put a positive spin on that always awkward process. Even for newcomers, mustering up the courage to audition for the first time, “fail better” could be taken as a reassurance.

Still, I kept holding myself up to ridiculously high standards whenever I worked on projects in the Boardmore—or when I took on other creative gigs, or, fuck it, pretty much all the time. The source of the pressure is complex and maybe irrelevant for now; the point is, I believed it was okay for others to “fail better” in their art, but damned if I wasn’t going to succeed. But that way lies perfectionism, and pressure, and paralysis. Besides, as a teacher, it’s bad form to consider myself immune to the same pitfalls that I expect, or even demand, of my students.

During my sabbatical, there will be no one nearby to see me fail, except perhaps the ghost of Samuel Beckett. But maybe that makes it the perfect time to embrace failure, instead of constantly fighting it off. Maybe it’s time to learn what “failing better” really means.

Are you a fan of “fail better”? What happens inside you when you feel a failure coming on?

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3 thoughts on “Transforming Failure

  1. Wesley says:

    I have to say, as one indoctrinated early by that silent spectre at the entrance of a hall that would unknowingly shape my future Sisyphean lifestyle… I’ve always found a great deal of inspiration from that quote. In fact, I’d say it’s become one of my guiding mantras.

    Perhaps the lens that filtered out some of the inherent bleakness came from my drama teacher for many years, Brian Gallivan, who further indoctrinated us with a slight amendment: “Dare to fail.”

    These simple slogans, coupled together, connote – for me – a sense of wild, if not fanciful ambition. Of making big choices, romantic adventures, and the brash arrogance (perhaps limited to youth) that allows us dreamers to dream the impossible.

    Yes there will be failures. There cannot help but be failures. And failure is in itself subjective enough term that even relative successes can all too quickly be sullied by the exacting perfectionism and self-sabotaging-sulleness I think we’ve both experienced once or twice.

    But without those failures, how do we learn? Every victory I’ve had was won on the back of vital information gleaned from a past failure (that or dumb luck, and what fun is that?)

    Plus, fear of failure is one of the most paralyzing (yet inevitable) demons of the creative mind – something you touch on as well. I think this quote provides some small strategy (or at least small solace) for dealing with this demon that cannot help but besiege every creative project worthy of any investment.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. It’s definitely very interesting seeing yours on a subject tangentially relevant yet intimately formative of my own life.

    Also, yes: I just stumbled upon Maple Danish when looking for a document from my old laptop that I retired some short time after Hamlet was done and was shocked to find out how much reading I had to catch up on (I thought I had signed up for e-mail notifications? I guess not?)

    Also, yes: This post is at least partially an excuse to write big words to express intimate things without fear of sounding pretentious. Unless I’ve failed in that regard, in which case… Next time I’ll fail better.

    1. Scott says:

      Thanks for your observations, Wesley. If you want to subscribe to the blog feed, swing by http://tinyletter.com/scottsharplin, type in your email address, and click “Subscribe.”

      Merry Christmas to you too! I’ve read from afar about all of HAT’s successes this fall and winter. The Boardmores would be proud, and even Sam Beckett would probably shrug and say, “Sure.” All the best for the new year!

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