Humans have always seriously messed up their lives.
Athens 429 BC – Premier of a tragedy called Oedipus Rex written by playwright Sophocles. Story of a highly honorable and capable man who messes up his life in a catastrophic way but the audience doesn’t view Oedipus as a loser. Greek tragedy designed to show audiences that terrible things can and very often do happen to good people. We must remain sympathetic and kind in the face of failure.
Similar story of Spartan army at Battle of Thermopylae. Small number of Spartans held out to the last man against a larger Persian force (Seen in the movie 300). Spartans defeated but their failure was seen as noble. You can lose and be good
Rome 46 AD – Caesar celebrates another triumph over the enemies of Rome. Romans worship success – it is all that counts. Success means money, fame and military glory. This creates a lot of anxiety around failure.
Germany 9 AD – Roman general Varus kills himself after losing a battle in the Teutoburg Forest. He made major errors in deploying his troops. His suicide is an expected consequence. Failure is so shameful that it shows one doesn’t deserve to go on living.
Near the Sea of Galilee in 30 AD – Jesus delivers the sermon on the mount telling his followers: ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ aka The unsuccessful are, in a way, more successful than the successful in the eyes of god because their failures erode arrogance and invite dependence on the divine. For 100s of years Christianity lends glamour and prestige to failure and challenges Roman values. Failing is a sign of being blessed.
Eastern India around 5 BC – wealthy young price, Siddhartha, aka Buddha, comes to a key realization about human beings – all of us are deeply maladjusted, unhappy creatures. We must learn to renounce our desires and escape from constant cycles of craving and wanting. In Buddha’s eyes, true success means utter failure in the eyes of a modern American
Paris 1799 AD – Napoleon inaugurates a new social order known as meritocracy. Careers open to the talented rather than just the privileged. Suddenly success seems to be a lot more fair and deserved. Failure starts to be re-categorized – not accidental or morally neutral as Christian ideal implied, but also in some ways deserved
Paris 1863 AD – French govt sponsors annual event where most successful painters are celebrated. Jury headed by a conservative head of the academy of fine arts rejects works from many talented painters. Rejected artists protest and set up their own rival exhibition. Gradually the public recognizes that officially ‘successful’ artist are terrible and the unsuccessful ones are true geniuses. Genius is first rejected but eventually comes to be accepted and celebrated.
New York 1987 AD – Forbes publishes first list of richest people on planet. Tone of magazine is celebratory reflecting and uncritical acceptance of the idea of the american dream.
New York 2011 – After another economic meltdown, protesters occupy Zuccotti Park near Wall St. Protest is about corruption and blindness of Americas financial institutions and a narrow elite, the 1%, have twisted our ideas of success and a good life. Protesters sound remarkably like Jesus on the sermon on the mount before the forces of contemporary capitalism hose them down and shut them up
Most of us are going to endure horrific failure in some area of our life. We define success by a very narrow, normally financial criteria.
To weaken the power of the narratives of success, we used to have religion and art, we have less of that now and the idea that failure can be noble has entirely disappeared.
We need to go back in history and fetch some of the ideas that could stop us from being fatally hard on ourselves when we mess up in the eyes of Forbes magazine and the American dream in general.