Success through failure
By Helen Kirwan-Taylor
If you want to make it to the very top today, you have to first fall flat on your face.
“She knows there’s no success like failure,” sang Bob Dylan, long before celebrity calamity became all the rage. Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, must have also had an inkling, too, when he wrote: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” Success, the kind where you work really hard and riches follow, is a concept that seems to have died with internet start-ups and big hair: if you want to make it to the very top today, you have to first fall flat on your face.
Even a prison sentence is hardly a hindrance. Some would say it is a smart career move. Jeffrey Archer was rich already, but two years in prison seem likely to make him even richer (offers for after-dinner speeches are flooding in; his second volume of prison diaries has just been published).
Nothing gets you noticed quite like public humiliation. It is something every Hollywood studio would love to package, if only they knew how. When the actress, Winona Ryder, was caught shoplifting at Saks Fifth Avenue, in Los Angeles, and was given three years’ probation and a ΰ12,000 fine, many predicted the death of her career. Were they kidding? Marc Jacobs, the American designer whose clothes she was caught stealing, chose her for this summer’s advertising campaign (her face is on every bus in New York). “Of course it will be controversial, but it won’t be in a negative way,” says the company’s president, Robert Duffy. “The shoplifting incident was a very minor thing, but the press made a huge deal out of it,” says Bill Stadiem, a Hollywood scriptwriter. “It was a shrewd career move on her part. Ryder never was a big box office hit she needed this.”
Michael Barrymore has really tasted failure. The 51-year-old was dumped by ITV last year after the death of party-goer Stuart Lubbock in his swimming pool. But he is back: he will perform in a seven-week run at Wyndham’s Theatre in London starting in September. “I am delighted to be returning to my roots and my first love of live theatre and am very much looking forward to performing to a West End audience,” he says. Barrymore has even been taking advice from former Blue Peter presenter, Richard Bacon, who was sacked from the programme for taking cocaine (before his new-found controversial streak landed him jobs presenting The Big Breakfast and Top of the Pops). The two stars are taking part in a debate at the upcoming Edinburgh Television Festival on whether celebrities’ private lives should affect their on-screen careers.
Perhaps the best example of a celebrity turning failure to her advantage is Sarah Ferguson. Not so long ago, she was the subject of public ridicule, and broke. Now, she is rich, thin, well-versed at failure-speak and a fixture on American cable television. Her best-selling book, What I Know Now: Simple Lessons, Learned the Hard Way includes chapters with titles such as “Forgiving the Past.”
“When celebrities fail, they become real people,” says Skinner. “We feel that we’re getting one up on them because their perfect world has exploded.”
Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, calls this celebrity Schadenfreude the “ambulance effect”: “Celebrities make big comebacks after failure due to the fact that we all make mistakes and we want to hear how previously successful people coped with difficult situations in their lives.”
Failure became a buzz word when the dotcom bubble burst in the late 1990s. Many paper millionaires instantly became part of the “90 per cent club” (people who had lost 90 per cent of their wealth, or more). The casualties got together and “dot-commiserated.” Ernst Malmsten, the founder of Boo.com, one of the greatest Internet catastrophes, instantly capitalised on events with his book, Boo Hoo: A dot.com story from concept to catastrophe.
“Our culture admires a risk-taker who fails more than a coward who never succeeds,” says Justin Sewell, the co-founder of Despair.com, a spoof website that champions corporate failure and sells “demotivational paraphernalia,” from “half empty glasses” to under-performance plaques.
Getting the sack used to mean career death: now, it is worn as a badge of courage. “Failure is a kind of macho celebration,” says Rob Goffee, the Deputy Dean of London Business School. “It says you’ve got battle scars. When someone gets sacked, it makes him or her significant. It implies they took risks.” Thousands of City workers have been sacked in the past few years. “There’s no stigma attached any more,” says headhunter Philippa Rose, of the Rose Partnership. “It used to be the bottom 10 per cent who were let go, now it’s the bottom 40 per cent.”
Failure paralyses or it motivates. “If you’re going to benefit from failure, you have to have certain skills,” says Goffee. “The best leaders are good at admitting their failures. Good leadership rests on the acknowledgement of incompetence.”
Once you’ve failed, you join a very exclusive club. You do not exactly have war wounds; but you do not trust anyone who has not tasted battle.
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