Tim Leberecht

The Romance of Work

Don’t Fail Better, Fast, or Forward. Fail Beautifully.

What last week's events tell us about the changing nature of failure.

Posted May 12, 2019

Louis Hansel, used with permission
Source: Louis Hansel, used with permission

Last week, a string of seemingly disparate events—the heroics of British football teams in the Champions League, the Uber IPO, and the UN extinction report—gave us a glimpse into the changing nature of failure and why it matters.

Epic comebacks

For starters, British football teams FC Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur each achieved epic comebacks in their Champions League semi-finals. Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield Road, their home stadium, after a 0-3 defeat away, and Tottenham overcame a three-goal lag in the second half of its return game against Ajax in Amsterdam.

Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp looked ecstatic, but more vindicated than overwhelmed at the final whistle. Before the match, it was reported, he had told his players that they should either achieve the impossible or fail beautifully. The New Yorker took this as a reference to Samuel Beckett’s famous line: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” But it misses the point of Liverpool’s “endgame.” Klopp did not want his team to fail better, he impressed on his team to fail beautifully.

In the very moment winning was no longer the point, winning became possible.

His phrasing seems a deliberate choice. Sure, we speak of football as the beautiful game, but when it comes to performance, we typically want to fail fast or forward in order to then recover quickly and finally succeed. Klopp, however, had something else in mind. By giving his players the license to fail beautifully, he gave them the freedom to simply go out and feel joy, passion, and exuberance, without the burden of consequence. Whereas the Barcelona players appeared stifled by knowing that they had to win or be completely embarrassed, for Liverpool, the path to redemption was clear: in the very moment that winning was no longer the point, winning became possible.

It turns out, soccer is the game that shows our humanity in the most strident fashion. Machines are programmed to win, but we humans have the luxury of playing just for the sake of play. In a time defined by optimization and reward-obsessed gamification, this—and not just Liverpool’s and Tottenham’s impressive fighting spirit—is what made these games so special.

Our definition of success must view humanity as something that we cannot gain but lose.

In the week of Uber’s IPO and the release of the UN extinction report, Liverpool’s and Tottenham’s feats hold some broader insights. Obviously, these three events differ greatly in impact and importance, and it may seem absurd to compare them. Yet the more absurd the juxtaposition, the more truth it may hold in times like these.

So let’s draw some conclusions: the winner-takes-all, "blitzscaling” mindset that Uber epitomizes creates incentives to win at all costs. It’s a mindset that neglects the beauty of play, that is, the importance of fulfillment without gain. It is bent on crushing competition and extracting value from all parts of the ecosystem.

At the root of this behavior is the idea that success is about winning, and that winning is an end that justifies all means. Yet a society is only as humane as it is not just tolerant, but appreciative of losing. Our definition of success must reflect that, while recognizing that our humanity is something that cannot be gained but only be lost. It is this humility that might help us hold in high regard the fragility of civilization.

Failing beautifully means to surrender.

Losing is a key sentiment of our human condition. But in the future, it appears, it will become its main function. Whether we like it or not, we are all going to lose, and the losses will be of historic proportions: from large-scale job losses due to automation, to our social contracts due to an obsession with growth, to the ultimate loss—the health of our planet.

Perhaps, we will be able to contain, compensate for, and console ourselves despite some of these losses, but even so, the cure will not come from continuing to win. Neither will it come from failing better, forward, or fast. No, we must learn to fail beautifully.

If winning is no longer possible and if loss is inevitable, then failing beautifully means to engage in a stubborn act of belief in the wake of nearing defeat. It is the final straw of human agency we have left: to surrender to playing simply for the pleasure of playing.