Self-improvement with Sam
An Irishman’s Diary about the triumph of failure, Beckett-style
It must be only a matter of time before Nike or one of the other sports shoe companies goes the whole hog and adopts the Samuel Beckett quotation – “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – as a corporate slogan.
Beckett didn’t intend the phrase to be a motivational tool. But we know that he once considered a career as an advertising copywriter, and he clearly had a talent for that sort of thing, even if, in the end, he channelled it into the expression of existentialist despair rather than marketing or self-improvement.
Now, those industries have caught up with his talents anyway. It’s a measure of his unintended influence that the latest winner of a Grand Slam tennis event, Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka, has the quotation tattooed on his arm.
And it’s a measure of what a loss Beckett was to advertising that Wawrinka was able to include a much longer version of the quote – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – in the space between his wrist and elbow.
At first, apparently, he meant the gesture in an almost Beckettian sense. It expressed the existentialist anguish of a professional tennis player who’d been born in the same era as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and was doomed to be beaten by them,
Now, however, it’s the mantra of a winner. And as an article on the US website slate.com explained recently, the “Fail Better” slogan is not just used by sports people. It has also become a favourite of Silicon Valley and a whole new generation of entrepreneurs.
In fact, it may already be a bit too mainstream for promoting sports shoes. If so, there’s plenty more where it came from. As I’ve mentioned here before, being a middle-aged runner, I find Beckett a very useful source of motivational material.
In my experience, phrases like “Just do it” are a bit too cheerful. For the particular form of drudgery that is long-distance running, the last lines of the Beckett Trilogy are better. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” is just perfect for the 20-mile stage in a marathon: especially if you can ignore the fact that, after 500 pages, they were the lines with which Beckett finally stopped.
A couple of years ago (Irishman’s Diary, January 13th, 2012), I proposed an exciting new addition to Dublin’s range of museums. It would house a collection of the nation’s greatest failures, or “A History of Ireland in 100 Rejects”, as I suggested subtitling it.
Unfortunately, financial backing for the project has yet to emerge. Perhaps investors are worried that the museum itself might be a failure, which would be humorously apt, but would also be the sort of joke you’d need deep pockets to enjoy.
Anyway, pending such a development, I’m delighted to see that at least a temporary exhibition on the theme has opened at Trinity’s Science Gallery. It’s called – of course – “Fail Better”. And it limits itself to exhibits on a mere 20 “beautiful, heroic, and instructive” failures, not just from Ireland, but around the world (and, in one case, beyond it).
Thus there’s no room for e-voting machines, or the Millennium Clock, or Guinness Light or the Lumper Potato, all of which would be in the permanent museum. Instead, Ireland is represented by a couple of literary exhibits (including Beckett) and by Sonia O’Sullivan, who like Wawrinka, used earlier disappointments as a springboard to Australian glory.
In general, the Trinity exhibition tries to find positives in failure. Thus, the Mars Climate Orbiter – which probably disintegrated on its approach because of a mix-up whereby one of the launch teams used imperial measures while another used metric – is cited as a good (if expensive) lesson in the importance of attention to detail.
And even a 1965 invention by US couple George and Charlotte Blonsky, which aimed to ease childbirth by harnessing the power of centrifugal force, is found to have an upside. The invention involved strapping an expectant mother onto a table that, rotating at high speed, would launch her baby into earthly orbit (via a safety net), without the usual discomfort.
The Blonskys’ vision is no nearer reality today, 49 years on. But it was surely inevitable that, sooner or later, it would inspire a comic opera. And apparently, it just has.
The centrifugal birth-o-matic is reminiscent of those mad creations Myles na gCopaleen used invent in his Irish Times column. So I’m glad to see that he too features in the Trinity exhibition, albeit via his novel-writing persona, and for something he really did create. The Third Policeman was an unpublished failure in its lifetime, but its brilliance was recognised not long after he died on April Fool’s Day 1966. I hope he enjoyed the joke.