The Failure Fetish

Harrison Whitaker
6 min readOct 11, 2023

I wrote this brief essay in about 30 minutes on a solitary evening in February 2021. While clearing out files earlier, I came across it and decided to let it see the light of day — like a blemish that needs burned off by the heat of the sun.

What do you know about failure? Surely you’re aware of the importance of learning from failure, but did you know failure is actually a better teacher than success? More than that, failure is your best friend. The average numbskull might generally strive to avoid failure; his more developed peers will be keenly aware that searching for failure — er, no embracing failure is the way to go here. Just don’t forget to fail quickly and fail often: your failure résumé isn’t going to fill itself.

Of course, failure needn’t be justified. Failure for its own sake should be good enough — what else is there to learn from the consummate action? — once you remember that failure, naturally, is the secret to success.

What, if anything, is going on here? The impartial observer would be forced to assume that the 2010s were a decade of unprecedented hardship for the literate professional class based on the comfort-vational article industrial complex that sprouted up around that time. There is an obvious temptation to cannily connect this all back to the 2008 financial crisis, with the unseen pen of capital encouraging workers to learn from the mistakes they made while shipwrecking an economy that they were never at the helm of. We will table this for a moment.

Maybe employees are just getting worse? Perhaps IQs truly are going down the drain and the worker bees are having crises of confidence over how little honey they’re managing to produce. We know that per-worker productivity has increased by a lot and will continue to do so into the future, so maybe it’s the managers that are behind this: convince your employees that they suck, write a bunch of articles telling them that they suck (but don’t explain why they suck) and how they can learn from their suckiness, watch productivity go up again. This sounds plausible.

Anyways, Barack Obama spent the first part of 2017 (excluding the little part right at the beginning when he was president) on a private island with Richard Branson writing a book. After that, he flew to the University of Chicago to tell the students there that failure is terrible but necessary. In this context, it sounds encouraging: not all of your ventures will take off, but you’ve gotta take risks if you wanna hang out on Necker Island one day. A few months later, Hurricane Irma destroyed nearly every structure on the island, only to be rebuilt by Branson the following year. Terrible? Maybe. Necessary? Maybe?

I misled you earlier. I don’t really think there is a cottage industry that pumps out articles on why failure is good or okay or sexy in order to oppress workers. I have (ghost)written for several popular business publications before and cavorted with some of these publications’ most popular contributors — I can tell you that if these people want to oppress their workers, they will simply oppress their workers.

The truth is that this obsession with failure isn’t a new false consciousness and the failure fetish is not the opiate of the masses. Talk to an employee, any employee: your husband, partner, wife, uncle, neighbor, self. Of those that hate their careers, they generally know it. Even people with occupational ambivalence or who like to wear a professional face can hardly ignore the nagging right beneath the surface. What is failure to someone like that? A respite from the monotony of unsatisfying success.

I suppose I should take this opportunity to make my position on this issue clear: failure is bad. When I set it to achieve something, I consider it bad if I do not achieve it. I almost didn’t want to state this outright, because it suddenly sounds like I’m arguing against these attitudes towards failure in the same way my high school math teacher argued against the popularity of participation trophies like it was nuclear proliferation. Failure is not a sin, but it’s certainly not something to appreciate.

It’s also worth mentioning the idea that this is all a game of sleight-of-hand. Surely no system of values appreciates failure less than the double helix of capitalism and American exceptionalism. Perhaps we are all talking about embracing failure in the same way that elite colleges talk about valuing the whole individual before admitting an entire class of debating fencers who got 35s on their ACTs — it’s a lie, we all know it’s a lie, but it beats telling the truth by a mile.

I want to talk now about two different lotteries and two different 1984s. The first lottery is the NBA draft lottery, a likely-rigged system that decides which teams will pick which players in which order. Before the lottery was established, there was just a coin flip between the worst team in the league and the second-worst team in the league to decide who would have the first overall pick. The year right before the draft lottery was instated was 1984, and the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers flipped the coin. Houston won the coin toss and went on to draft Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest basketball players in history. The Trailblazers got Sam Bowie, who spent most of his career out with leg injuries.

This was not a failure on Portland’s part, unless you want to be particularly cruel and say that they should have called the coin toss correctly. They did fail, however, to pick Micahel Jordan, who went third in the draft to the Chicago Bulls. Houston also failed to do this, though their failure was not as obviously terrible since Olajuwon was very good. Do you think Portland learned anything from their failure? What spot on their failure résumé do you imagine this incident occupies?

The second lottery I want to talk about is the Lottery from George Orwell’s 1984, which he described like this:

They were talking about the Lottery. Winston looked back when he had gone thirty metres. They were still arguing, with vivid, passionate faces. The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made a living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets.

Why drag on? This is the failure fetish.

It’s hard to work. “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life,” they say and sure but it’s hard to love what you do too. Most people are forced to work as a result of not being born into wealth or into a state or status that guarantees social security. That alone is enough to inspire existential tremors — the world demands that I work before it even knows anything about me, or I about it, or I about me.

When I fail professionally, I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what the professional “me” is, but I know that the stakes of failure are ambiguous though likely high. Failure is a sudden reminder of just how tenuously I am in this world and how many hoops I have to jump through in order to extract my sense of worth from life. If I fail at my job, I cease to be “me” and am suddenly a “failure;” do this enough times and the two identities become inseparably tangled.

The failure fetish, at its core, turns mundane occupational discrepancies into chapters of a long cosmic drama. I am human; I cannot separate my failures from my own self image. The failure fetish allows me to take a failure and graft it not onto myself but onto my journey, my long undulating arc towards the ultimate realization of the individual: success-death. Obama’s failures looked so small to him from the high watermark of success he experienced on Necker Island that he could call them necessary without missing a beat.

What caused the failure of the Portland Trailblazers in the 1984 draft? Bad luck and incompetence in some combination, probably, are the root causes of most failures on the job. I don’t know what this means, if anything, but I know that there are leagues of entrepreneurs, consultants, businesspeople, Forbes columnists, and regular everyday workers who could take a failure made out of bad luck and incompetence and divine the Truth Ultimate from it. Failure is the totem of a kabbalistic cult of professionals so scared of it that they feel compelled to worship instead.

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Harrison Whitaker

Haver of opinions. Lover of some things, hater of others.