How the 20th Century’s Most Depressing Writer Became the Poster Child for Silicon Valley Success

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Jan. 29 2014 5:48 PM

The Stunning Success of “Fail Better”

How Samuel Beckett became Silicon Valley’s life coach.

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What has happened here, I suppose, is that a small shard of a fragmentary and difficult work of literature has been salvaged from the darkness of its setting, sanded and smoothed of the jagged remnants of that context. This is the process by which a piece of writing becomes a quote, a saying—a linguistic object whose meaning is readily apparent, useful, and endlessly transferable, like a coin in the currency of wisdom.

Fail Better, with its TEDishly counterintuitive feel, is the literary takeaway par excellence; it’s usefully suggestive, too, of the corporate propaganda of productivity, with its appeals to “think different” or “work smarter” or “just do it.” And the fact is that these six telegraphic bursts of exhortation actually work pretty well as a personal motto, once that sanding and smoothing has been completed. They are also—and this is crucial, though obviously not something Beckett would have had in mind—eminently tweetable; the whole thing comes in at just 69 characters, which leaves people plenty of room for whatever commentary or show of approval they might want to append.

The entrepreneurial fashion for failure with which this polished shard fits so snugly is not really concerned, as Beckett was, with failure per se—with the necessary defeat of every human endeavor, of all efforts at communication, and of language itself—but with failure as an essential stage in the individual’s progress toward lucrative self-fulfillment. Failure, in the #failbetter sense, is something to be embraced and celebrated, to be approached with a view to understanding how it might most effectively be transmuted into success. (Dave McClure, the founder of the 500 Startups incubator, told Fast Company that “the alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was 'fail factory.’ We're here trying to 'manufacture fail' on a regular basis, and we think that's how you learn.”)

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When I think about how Beckett’s words have been quotationalized in this way, pressing him into service as a kind of highbrow motivational thought-leader, I find myself thinking of how his wife Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil reacted to the news of his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969: “Quelle catastrophe!” This isn’t to imply that the way in which the Worstward Ho quotation has been “pivoted”—to use a phrase beloved of the entrepreneurial champions of the Fail Better ethos—is any kind of serious disaster for Beckett but rather to illustrate that his attitude toward success and failure was more complex and perverse than this interpretation suggests. (Although it’s easy to imagine that he might have been rooting for Wawrinka on Sunday; Beckett was, for all his pessimism, a serious tennis enthusiast.)

As drastically funny as it often is, of course, Beckett’s oeuvre as a whole is famously low on positive vibes. (“Despair young and never look back,” he once counseled the young Irish novelist Aidan Higgins.) The way in which these lines have become a standard of the personal boosterism repertoire is superbly ironic, and sort of wonderful in its way.

And when you restore the lines to their original context (a reversal that feels almost perverse now that they’ve come to seem so staunchly pro-business and pro-tennis), it’s difficult to imagine a piece of writing less obviously ripe for the harvesting of uplifting phrases. Worstward Ho, it hardly needs saying, gets steadily less inspirational as it goes on. The paragraph that follows the Fail Better lines, for instance, is full of the kind of stuff that would actually be worse than useless as a motivational aid on the tennis court, or anywhere else. “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.” It will probably be a while before we see anyone winning a Grand Slam title with that tattooed on their arm.

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