Why is failure so important in life

Why failure matters

Overall World Cup, giant slalom, slalom: Henrik Kristoffersen was the eternal runner-up in the 2017/2018 ski season. After Marcel Hirscher. A similar picture in this ski season: The Austrian wins, the Norwegian is usually behind him. Does it get easier to come to terms with over time? "No, it doesn't get any easier to be second. You shouldn't laugh and clap when someone beats you and you don't perform," Kristoffersen said in a recent interview.

In a performance society, people are measured by their success. What really matters is victory. For a professional athlete, every second place is a defeat. "So that we can grow from defeat, we have to deal with them properly. We need a new awareness of our weaknesses," says psychiatrist Déirdre Mahkorn, senior physician at the Bonn University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

This is particularly difficult for certain occupational groups. For example pianists, bassists, saxophonists. Mahkorn's patients are professional musicians who are supposed to overcome their fear of making mistakes. The department that she founded especially for this clientele she calls the "stage fright station". The panic of failure is so great that the mistakes that have not yet happened are already expected - and then often made. "That can set a downright vicious circle in motion," emphasizes the expert.

Even in elementary school under pressure

"The more performance becomes a criterion for the social role and self-image, the more serious the failure," explains Olaf Morgenroth, health psychologist at the Medical School Hamburg. So it always depends on the society in which a person lives and sees himself as a failure.

Senior physician Mahkorn, who runs the acute ward at the Bonn University Clinic in addition to the stage fright ward, has found that the young generation in particular has very high demands on their own performance. More and more young people are coming to the acute ward who consider themselves to have failed. "I am not only talking about adolescents or young adults, but also about elementary school students. Even here we do not have a culture of mistakes, but a culture of avoiding mistakes."

Already in elementary school, from the third grade at the latest, many children suffer from pressure to perform and fear of failure, because the pressure is great to have to make it to high school. If a child then actually "fails", it is very likely that they will cry. A sentence that elementary school teachers keep hearing from nine or ten year olds: "My life is over."

Confess on the stage

Not only in Austria, but in most European countries, mistakes and defeats have been a taboo up to now. But slowly something is changing: The speakers who stand on stage at a so-called "Fuckup Night" to talk about their personal professional failures are not afraid to admit their mistakes. Developing a positive culture of error was the main concern of Salomé Wagner and Dejan Stojanovic, who brought the concept of "Fuckup Nights" from Mexico to Vienna in 2014. For the last four years, related events have therefore been held throughout Austria on a regular basis. The form of public error reporting is represented in over 300 cities in more than 80 countries worldwide.

"It is unbelievable what dynamism, energy and thirst for knowledge arise when people openly talk about mistakes and failures," says founding member Stojanovic. The Pecha Kucha presentation style (ten minutes of speaking time, ten images) gives the speakers the opportunity to concentrate on the essentials: That's me, that's the project, what went wrong, what did I do wrong. In a nutshell. The question-and-answer session that takes place at the end of each performance is not only helpful and instructive for the audience, but also for the failed young entrepreneurs. How did you deal with it? How are you doing with it now? What did you learn from this for your new project?

The great taboo of modernity

Failure still has a bad image in our society. Instead of encouraging someone to dare to do something, to believe in themselves and in a cause, young start-ups in particular are unsettled: "It'll never work!", "Do something sensible!", "You're guaranteed to fail!" But Austrian companies are also increasingly willing to rethink and give room to mistakes - following the example of US companies that praise their employees for mistakes and ask them to set goals that are as unattainable as possible. According to the credo: "Only those who push their limits can also be innovative."

The American sociologist Richard Sennett once described failure as the great taboo of modernity. A few years ago, the exhibition "Better Failure" at the Hamburger Kunsthalle showed that the opposite is the case. In art, "failure" is seldom equated with "failure". Because it is precisely here that something completely different, sensationally new, and absolutely contrary develops from the alleged defeat.

This has long been true not only for the visual arts, but for all activities that have anything to do with a creative process. And not just since yesterday. The Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote, who enjoyed spending a lot of time in the Hamburger Kunsthalle on his trip to Germany around 80 years ago: "Try again, fail again, fail better." (Anja Pia Eichinger, 7.1.2019)