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.

Samuel Beckett and Stanislas Wawrinka.
Samuel Beckett, tennis guru

Photo illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo. Photo by Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images.

Stanislas Wawrinka’s defeat of Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open last weekend was a milestone not just in the career of a 28-year-old Swiss tennis player but also in the posthumous life of one of the 20th century’s most unswervingly pessimistic writers. This is the first time a Grand Slam title has ever been won by a player with a Samuel Beckett quotation tattooed on his body (barring some unexpected revelation that, say, Ivan Lendl got himself a Waiting for Godot–themed tramp stamp before beating John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final). The words in question, inked in elaborately curlicued script up the length of Wawrinka’s inner left forearm, are these: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

The quotation is from Worstward Ho, a late, fragmentary prose piece that is one of the most tersely oblique things Beckett ever wrote. But those six disembodied imperatives, from the text’s opening page, have in their strange afterlife as a motivational meme come to much greater prominence than the text itself. The entrepreneurial class has adopted the phrase with particular enthusiasm, as a battle cry for a startup culture in which failure has come to be fetishized, even valorized. Sir Richard Branson, that affable old sage of private enterprise and bikini-based publicity shoots, has advocated from on high the benefits of Failing Better. He breaks out the quote near the end of an article about the future of his multinational venture capital conglomerate, telling us with characteristic self-assurance that it comes “from the playwright, Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly.”

But the oddest and most thematically dissonant invocation of the quote I’ve ever come across—and I’m inclined at this point to go ahead and call it a motto—was at the closing session of a major technology conference in Dublin last October. The stage was shared by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX), and Shervin Pishevar (billionaire venture capitalist, romantic consort of Tyra Banks). The interviewer closed the talk—the dual focus of which had been Musk’s extraordinary career and the role of the tech sector in Ireland’s economic recovery—by giving the last word to Beckett: “I remember being told the Samuel Beckett line, that great line; he said ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And that’s what keeps me going, in many ways.”

This invocation of Beckett sat oddly with the chat that had preceded it, concerned as it had been with disrupting market verticals and wealth creation and giving people a shot at pursuing their dreams of success. And it seemed to me to echo like a discordant note against the gospel chorus of Primal Scream’s “Movin’ On Up,” to which the billionaire investors and their new prime ministerial friend left the stage.

I only really became aware of the extent of Fail Better’s meme-ification a couple of years ago, on reading an excellent piece by the novelist Ned Beauman in the New Inquiry, in which he tracks its absurd ubiquity from quotation in Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek to books with titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Great Customer Service. “Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives,” he writes, “is like watching a neighbor clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone.” Until I read Beauman’s piece, I mistakenly thought the line had a fairly niche status as a platitude particular to literary types. I considered it a sort of writerly cliché-in-residence—something you’d likely find propped in postcard form on a novelist’s desk or pinned above the head of at least one bleary-eyed graduate student in any given English department. (I see no point in hiding the fact that this was my laptop’s desktop image through for the first year or so of my Ph.D., for what little good it did me in the long run.)

But I feel as though I’ve been coming across the lines everywhere since reading that piece. Wawrinka’s inner arm is just the latest and most prominent venue for their appearance. Note this strenuously twinkle-eyed rendition by Liam Neeson, part of a vague PR initiative by the Irish government to somehow boost the economy by reminding America that we produced both the Waiting for Godot guy and the Taken guy. (I find it hard to watch this, by the way, without imagining Beckett on the phone to Neeson, calmly intoning “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”) There’s also an exhibition called “Fail Better” about to open at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin—Beckett’s alma mater, and my own—described on its website as a showcase of “beautiful, heroic and instructive failures.”

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.”)

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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