I am not sure who won the races for governor, secretary of state, attorney general or auditor yet, but by the time this prints the losing candidates’ staff may want to bookmark it to plan their candidate’s failure parties. Part of a national trend that began with startups, failure parties have gone mainstream to mitigate shame and loss after a setback, and are no longer limited to the tech industry, although that’s their genesis.
I first heard about them in the context of entrepreneurs seeking investors. The line is you don’t know startup success until you’ve launched companies and experienced an epic bellyflop or several. To be taken seriously when seeking funding in the startup biz, it seems it’s better to have launched and lost, than never to have launched at all.
“Good” magazine’s summer 2015 issue featured a dinner party with failure as its theme and why it’s so damn tasty these days. The intelligentsia gathered to discuss the hit loss lobs to one’s ego and why we must turn loss on its head and instead celebrate it. Our self-esteem may even demand that we do so, the fragile creatures that we have become.
It makes sense because it corroborates the message ingrained in every American to get yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Or the one that tells us when something doesn’t work, it wasn’t meant to be. Eternal optimist that I am, I get it. But I am a white woman lawyer with privileges and others may not have. Let’s say I have a cushion, as tiny as it may be.
I am not, however, a Silicon Valley guru, an Ivy Leaguer or a trust fund baby with familial cash to fund my startup, my NGO, or my annual global trek to save people and/or animals. So it was with skepticism I read about failure parties. Who the hell are these people and will you please fund my next nonprofit?
There are those among us for whom failure means the loss of everything. They are the cushion-less. People who sunk their last dime into a business venture, who can’t borrow from another source, whose credit cards are maxed out, their homes in foreclosure, who are single parents working two jobs who hope the car makes it to work because they can’t afford a new tire or even an oil change. Failure for them is not an option. There are those too, who though they may have a cushion, for whom failure is antithetical to all in which they believe. Yet, failure may be the great leveler from which we all learn.
When I googled the East Coast lawyers who wrote about failure parties, what I found instead was a book, “Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony” by Lynn Sherr. Anthony cast her first and only vote on Nov. 5, 1872, for Ulysses Grant for President, an alleged crime for which she was arrested on Thanksgiving and tried in New York before an all male jury on June 17, 1873. She was not allowed to defend herself until after the trial, nor was she allowed to appeal. She claimed her right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution despite the fact that New York forbade it.
Anthony died in 1906. The United States ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Under no definition could her heroic efforts for women’s suffrage be deemed failure because she didn’t live to see women get the right to vote, a goal to which she devoted her life. Anthony was not impoverished, indeed she had a cushion, but does that mean the impact of not living to see her dream realized was less painful? “Failure to anybody, no matter the socioeconomic background is still hard,” said Jennifer Blair, founder of Excavive Coaching and Consulting.
Blair, in her 12th year of coaching, said failure can actually be harder for those accustomed to repeated success because their identities are so wrapped up in achievement. “It can be devastating for perfectionists to fail,” Blair said. “Don’t think because you fail and have resources everything is OK.”
Spiritual guru turned political candidate Marianne Williamson ran for Congress in 2014 and lost. Here’s what she told Oprah: “I felt that if I did the right thing, I would have a win no matter what that means.” “But it’s difficult with that because a lot of people are invested in you … My losing the Congressional seat is small. What’s big is the larger conversation.”
Failure dinner party conversation sparkers from “Good” magazine include “Tell us about a failure in your life that led to a future success,” and “Name something that you’ve done you’re proud of. What was the biggest risk you had to take in doing it?” For a fun spin, pass out whistles and deflated balloons. And may I suggest cupcakes emblazoned with “FML,” “Blew It” and thumbs down emojis for dessert. At least the kitchen will have the sweet smell of success even if you smell like l’eau de loseur. I think I may be on to something. Can I borrow some money?