Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett

All success is due to failure, and all advances in knowledge come about as a result of failed attempts. This is the reality of achievement. It is a truth that, once grasped, frees us to experiment and innovate –to discover, rather than vegetate or imitate.

In this space, I will investigate what creativity actually is, and how a human being finds his or her place in the world. It is a journey towards subjectivity rather any sort of perfection or conformity – one that is deeply invested in the stories and events that have made up Australia. Having just marked the centenary of Anzac Day, it is worth reflecting that the myth sustaining Australian identity is based on failure, not triumph. Men on the battlefield became admirable at Gallipoli for trying and failing not for succeeding.

Success, after all, is nothing if not the ability to tolerate failure. As odd as it may seem, success is built upon failure – not just being able to fail, but as Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Samuel Beckett, advised: to fail again, better. Beckett was a writer, but his insight is not limited to writing. Last year at the Australian Tennis Open, the winner, Swiss player Stan Wawrinka, beat the favourite, Rafael Nadal, inspired by Beckett’s quotation. Tattooed on his body as he played were the words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For Wawrinka, it was a battle cry, one that has been emulated by others who have made their mark in the world. These people have succeeded by knowing how to fail … their names would be known to you – though not necessarily how they made that name. J. K. Rowling, for instance, had the manuscript for her first Harry Potter book repeatedly rejected — 12 times, in fact — before a small London publisher chose to take it up. It only happened after the CEO’s eight-year old daughter begged her father to print the book. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have now sold more than 400 million copies. The franchise holds the distinction of having both history’s best-selling book series and highest grossing film series. Failure is – then – nothing to be ashamed of: not trying, however, is.

Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson, who you might know from his adventurous exploits, as well as his airline and mobile phone company, calls on Beckett’s quotation to guide his endeavors. He is not the only one. After two years of practicing and performing relentlessly, often for 10 or more hours a day, the world’s most successful rock group, the Beatles were finally given their first audition for a recording contract, only to be turned down on the grounds that “guitar groups are on the way out.” And US celebrity talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, who ran one of the highest-ranking TV shows ever and is the richest self-made woman and the only black female billionaire, was fired from her first job. Her boss told her that she was too emotional and not right for television.

Similarly Walt Disney, whose Disney studios pioneered animation and inventive film-making, was fired by a newspaper editor because he lacked imagination. Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, did not become the world’s richest man, overnight – he was a university drop out, whose first business failed. The man whose name implies genius, Albert Einstein, was a “failed” child. He did not speak until he was four, did not read until he was seven, was expelled from school and refused admittance to his local university. He went on to win the Nobel Prize and change, not just physics, but how we understand who we are. The same is true of Sir Isaac Newton, the man who discovered gravity, and Charles Darwin, who before he stumbled on to Natural Selection, gave up on his medical career. The man who literally had a light bulb moment, when he invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison, was another who did poorly in early life, along with US President Abraham Lincoln, TV’s most successful comic, Jerry Seinfeld, French artist, Vincent Van Gogh – who only sold only one painting in his lifetime – and Elvis Presley, who was fired after one performance. According to the promoter, the future king of rock n’ roll was a failure who needed to go back to driving a truck.

Failure then, is productive, not because good guys come last, but because good outcomes arise from bad ones. Although we can learn to fail without learning from it, when we do pay attention to it, we enter new thinking and risk-taking. Failure is how we learn – the natural consequence of the risk and complexity -which not only characterises life – but, when embraced, makes it exhilarating.

It is when things fail that minds get to work to devise better solutions: Success breeds contempt and fosters conformity and acquiescence, as history shows. The UK’s wartime British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, is a good example. He turned a dismal failure as First Lord of the Admiralty in WW1 – where he played a part in the disaster at Gallipoli, into a resolve that stopped Hitler during WW11

What seems to matter, I think, is not that we “fail”, which after all is another way to describe the process of discovery, but rather, that we learn from what we think of as failure. This is what has driven the most successful people in history. But it is not, as some might suggest, merely a question of telling yourself you can do it, as seductive as that sounds. Yes, since antiquity, sources such as Greece’s Temple of Delphi, have advised, “know yourself”, but is this just an act of will or adoption of a slogan?

Apple founder Steve Jobs – who once offered to swap all of his technology for just one afternoon with Greece’s most famous philosopher, Socrates – did not think so. Jobs, whom you can thank for your IPhones, IPads and Apple Watches, saw that what really mattered was what he called “the lightness of being a beginner,” that is, the exhilaration which exists in occupying the space of ongoing discovery. This is not a matter of ticking boxes, assembling dot points or mouthing homilies; it is rather the curious satisfaction that comes when you are prepared to suspend belief and inquire. It is a pathway to the kind of know-how that means that if we know ourselves better, we damage ourselves less. But it is one that recognises that the barrier between us -and what we know of ourselves – is formidable – that there are so many things that we would rather not know. Just as we suspect that there are many things that we must not become, we are frightened of the forces that roar within us, that perpetually menace our precarious security. These forces exist: we cannot will them away. What we can do is tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort, as the lives I’ve touched on show, is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.

Jobs liked the idea of carpe diem – seize the moment – live your life not someone else’s. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. It is another way of – a la Beckett – failing again, failing better than last time. I am a psychoanalyst, and for psychoanalysis, failure in so much as it pertains to speech has a special place. It is called a slip of the tongue, or what happens when something apparently unintended slips out. For analysts this can be more important than intended speech, as it is a formation of the unconscious, something that we are hiding from ourselves. When this “failed” speech arises it alerts us to what we might not want to know, but which is nevertheless pulling our strings. Freud believed failure makes one inventive. By creating a free flow of associations, it brings idea after idea, whereas success produces a certain narrow mindedness or thick-headedness. It is when we fail that we can see how to get better. What prevents us from doing this is seeing what we brand as failure as a failing when it is really how we grow, the only way to succeed. But often we don’t know this and become defensive as soon as things start going wrong. Yet, these very normal defences — such as denial, pretending and feeling deflated or depressed — wreak havoc on our ability to adapt and find our place. It seems the hardest thing in the world is to admit we have made a mistake and move on. It requires us to step away from the persona, or mask, we have made to protect ourselves. This mask, or ego, is a phony self, not who we actually are – and the business of life is being curious enough to discover this for ourselves.

So, what might be a way to do this? Here is an idea already alluded to. Speak as truly as you dare; it is the same advice Nobel Prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway, gave – “write the truest sentence you know.” To deceive others is to deceive yourself, which is how you become lost. Speaking in a way that doesn’t trick, on the other hand, has the effect of surprise, taking you back to being a beginner, the place from where learning is possible. New beginnings are what we are after, so that “failure” becomes not just normal, but unavoidable and we see that the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes.

We’ve been told that “persistence pays,” and it does, but this thought can mean it feels wrong to cut losses and label an idea a failure. Being able to recognize a failure, however, just means you’ll be able to re-cast it into something different.

The fact is that a great deal can be learned when things going unexpectedly, which is what failure is. So very much scientific success comes from missteps – engineers and programmers who push systems to their limits – like curious children – breaking them to learn about them. What this tells us, I believe, is that creativity depends on failure and creating a culture that punishes failure harshly not only inhibits creativity, but also risks teaching people not to communicate important “failures” with others.

In fact, as it is impossible to succeed without first failing, we are better advised to engage with it – smartly. The problem is that failure carries a stigma and in this society that is likely to lower self respect, which is why it is often linked with unhappiness. The premise here is that success is conducive of happiness, as if happiness is something that can be engineered, rather than, as the root of the word in both ancient Greek and every Indo-European language reveals, a correlate with luck. In English the root is happ, or chance, and is seen in words like happenstance. For me this suggests that happiness is a by-product, not, as Positive Psychology would have it, an objective or goal. The conflation of the two ideas, positive willing and happiness, is clear in the way Positive Psychology’s key exponent, Dr Martin Seligman, portrays his creation as authentic happiness.

But happiness is the most conformist of moral aims. I am going to argue that it, and optimism, while useful, can be banal and delusional, just as pessimism can be necessary and informative. In fact feeling unhappy in the sense of registering pain and loss, is the price we pay for being human and to try and avoid it means condemning ourselves to an orthopaedic psychologizing conducive of depression. Mimicking happiness, it seems to me, misses the opportunity to come to a new appreciation of incompleteness, and therefore possibility. Thus, “failure” is not an embarrassment, but rather an ever-¬present component in the unending drift toward mastery. As a word, “failure” is a sort of a portmanteau junk space: We dump all sorts of meanings into it, and, when something goes wrong, rummage around and pull one out. This is a worse “failure” than any failing I can think of.