When is calling yourself a failure a good thing?

Shouting “failure” isn’t great for selling ourselves – that goes without saying. But is it alright to brand yourself a failure in some things if you’re prepared to be a winner at others?

At a training course I attended this week at the LCMJ, one of the exercises was to create ‘our story in a nutshell’. Limit – 160 characters.

As this was being described, I thought immediately of my ‘From U to P’ article, which explains how I failed an A-Level paper on the poet Andrew Marvell and later completed a doctoral thesis on him.

PhD Isolation and Doubt

I often gravitate towards failure. It’s relatively rare that I use it as a deflection towards success. But it did make me wonder if that can become a positive self-fashioning mechanism.

Self-deprecation can be witty. Copyblogger’s Demian Farnworth, who describes writing as his “main gig”, concludes his profile with “outside of this I’m pretty useless”. (I’m not sure this is still live, but it’s the example we worked with.)

There are countless examples of modest deflection. By downplaying other skills, you’re attempting to make others recognise your competence in the one being promoted.

But too much self-deprecation is distinctly off-putting. If you go overboard with the ‘I suck’ or ‘I’m useless’ platitudes, people aren’t going to care about your abilities. The attitude has already bombed.

So, can you play with both extremes, I wondered. Can you, or should you, parry your failures to embrace success?

I came up with the following, which I quite liked:

  • Failed at school; Won at university.
  • Failing academic; Winning marketeer.
  • Failure at life; Winner at work!

It’s a similar ploy of accepting what you’re not good at, but showing that you’ve always gravitated towards something victorious.

I’m not out to sell myself, so this was only for the sake of an exercise. But rhetoric does count, and I’m encouraged that it’s got me thinking.

4 thoughts on “When is calling yourself a failure a good thing?

  1. “But too much self-deprecation is distinctly off-putting. ” I agree wholeheartedly. Many times this is used as a ploy for attention and a grab for platitudes. Acknowledging failure is honest and cathartic, but I guess it’s an art to know how much recognition of failure one can put out into public view without being deemed a drama queen!

    1. It’s interesting to hear your view, because to many people the standard British cultural stereotype is that of a slightly bashful self-deprecating Hugh Grant figure (parodied so brilliantly).

      But yes, I think you have to both rationalise and reassess when it comes to something so culturally sensitive. We’re more likely to understand or tolerate others expressing failure if there’s enough context to understand the circumstances or the joke around it.

      At the same time, failure is relative and needs to be used sparingly. Many of my old posts here are littered with so many signs of it. While it may have seemed necessary at the time, it does seem like a filter that I find myself gradually editing out. Looking at old posts, it gets in the way of good writing sometimes. The clouded judgement that such mindsets provide never allows you to see that at the time.

  2. We live in a world which seems more interested in failure than success, with endemic phrases like ‘epic fail’ (forget the -ure, it only wastes valuable shaming time) and ‘you had one job’. Then there is the pejorative term ‘humblebrag’: a warning to us that success tempered with modesty can be as badly received as self-deprecation.

    There is something to be said for giving wins and losses equal billing, and it was Kipling who said it: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’. A big if indeed in the age of social media. Do your friends and followers want you to ‘be a man, my son’ if being a bewildered boy or a hapless adolescent is less threatening and more entertaining to them?

    It seems there is an art to ‘taking ownership’ of one’s successes and failures alike. As if people will listen to us blowing our own trumpet as long as we hit a few wrong notes.

    1. Yes, you’re right. I think it’s because there’s a new-world hubris (alpha-humanity?) that sets itself so proudly for success that failure is both a necessary comeuppance and a slightly enjoyable spectacle (The Apprentice is the perfect demonstration).

      I’d never heard of ‘humblebrag’ before. Heh – it reminds me of:

      Brian: Last year, I raised eight dollars and got on a BuzzFeed listicle.
      Peter: No! You use real words! Internet stuff is not real words.

      Well, I’ll strive for the Les Dawson route – well-practiced, convincing and highly comical bum notes – if that works? 🙂

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