The Sound of Failure

There’s something that Elliott Smith said one time that really got to me. Something about Americans being hardwired to not accept failure. How just admitting it is Un-American, to admit that what you do is anything rather than a rousing success is to venture into some darkened hallway of American consciousness that people just don’t want to think about.

But it’s everywhere isn’t it? We know that many of our public schools are classified as failures. For Schools its easy when it comes to failure. The line is so clearly laid out by numbers, percents. Businesses fail.

Fifty percent of marriages fail. But we don’t think of the marriage at the end of it as much as we do the next step. That we are now free, we move on.

Maybe what Elliott Smith meant was that Americans have a hard time dealing with failure, or calling it failure. We rename the file, put our own spin on it, repackage it until it doesnt mean failure anymore.

And sure, in some circles, Real Estate and Sales in particular, failure is a concept, a head space that has been eliminated, drawn out of the reeds and caged. The word Failure will not appear in the vocabulary of a PR person, it’s not found in a quarterly report, a charter or Advertising slogan. Failure will not be admitted by politicians until they are literally standing in front of the general public with their personal sexual proclivities dangling like the microphone cord from the TV news reporter called in at the last minute.

In Scientology, or at least in my own narrow understanding of it, Failure, like most negative thoughts are cordoned off and eliminated in techniques some would say could be categorized as brain washing.

But like everything else in America, I wonder about what makes something American? With a country as vast as we are, with the diversity we have, is it possible to pigeon hole us like that?

Those who do fail, and fail on a fairly regular basis are quite familiar with failure, they can feel the disappointment that goes along with it rise up from their stomach, feel that light tension in the solar plexus. There are those that cannot admit failure. Those folks probably take an awful lot of antacids.

At the end of the day though, failure is so American, ever since this country was founded, from day one, our day to day lives have been based on failures, either large or small. Big failures like the genocide of a people, or small ones like not letting a building be demolished. Sometimes we don’t even know how big our failures are. Because every decision we make is a potential minor failure, and sometimes we don’t know when we’ve made a mistake until days later. Sometimes failure is ingrained in our daily life, we pass by failures on the freeway, walk past failure on the way to work and school. Failure is in our blood, as much a part of who we are as our fingerprints. And yet, failure is the one thing we won’t talk about in polite company.

So where does it come into play exactly? When does a series of mistakes turn into failure? If mistakes are a bruise, at what point does the amputation start?

There’s a fine line between thinking yourself as a failure, and falling prey to all the traps that get in the way of moving on. But maybe not. Maybe failure can be liberating. Maybe failure is like some kind of Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, and to accept failure is to hammer the final nail in the coffin of an idea, a relationship, a book, or a movie project that never got off the ground, a botched attempt at getting back into painting or sculpture, or maybe it is a day that just didn’t go right.

America wouldn’t be the overblown, distorted, and confused country it is without failure. And we are all better for it. Or not. Maybe this article was a failure. What does failure sound like anyway? Like a drum, or a gong? There’s got to be tears in their somewhere right?


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