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Why Do We Love Failure?

By rusty in News
Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 02:00:59 PM EST
Tags: You Know... (all tags)
You Know...

I opened up my Washington Post this morning to find a story about an exhibit of artifacts from the Titanic taking place in Chicago. The article asks, "Why are we still so fascinated by the Titanic?" But I have a larger question in mind, of which the Titanic is only one example. Why are we so fascinated by human failure, large and small, in all it's ignominy?

I'm reading Underworld, by Don Delillo, at the moment, and one of the unifying themes of the book is the life of a particular baseball, the one pitched by Ralph Branca and hit by Bobby Thompson to win the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants. The "Shot Heard Round the World," as it was called. One of the owners of the ball, a character named Marvin Lundy, keeps it not because he was a Giants fan, but because he was a Dodgers fan, and it reminds him of failure. He's powerless to explain why this concrete example of human failure is so compelling to him, though

Being from the Boston area, originally, The name Bill Buckner is synonymous with failure in my mind. He let a slow line drive slip past him in the 10th inning of the 6th game of the 1986 World Series, losing a 5-3 lead, and pretty much squashing the Red Sox hopes of their first championship since 1918. I was ten when this happened, and didn't care about baseball then, or now, particularly. Yet I saw the game on TV, and the image of Buckner bent over, the ball caroming off his glove and into right field behind him is still etched freshly into my mind.

The image in the logo of kuro5hin.org is of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which, due to poor engineering, hit a resonance frequency in a lightish breeze and shook and twisted itself to pieces, becoming one of the most famous failures in American civil engineering history.

The stock market crash of 1929. China's Great Leap Forward. The Maginot Line. I'm sure you can all think of a dozen more examples of times when "the best laid plans" ganged agley. Why do we hold these so firmly, almost lovingly, in our minds? Why are we so loathe to let the past be the past, to let mistakes that we believe cannot ever happen again lie still and collect dust? Why does Marvin Lundy spend years tracking a small concrete reminder that his team lost? I don't know. Maybe you do.


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Why Do We Love Failure? | 14 comments (14 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Food for thought, it has a nice bea... (none / 0) (#6)
by Emacs on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 11:23:18 AM EST

Emacs voted 1 on this story.

Food for thought, it has a nice beat and you can dance to it...

Hmm. (none / 0) (#14)
by Dolgan on Tue Dec 26, 2000 at 11:34:08 AM EST

Emacs voted 1 on this story.

I wish that stuff was still displayed in such a convenient location...

[ Parent ]

If we don't recognise past failures... (none / 0) (#4)
by bmetzler on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 11:31:51 AM EST

bmetzler voted 1 on this story.

If we don't recognise past failures, we won't realize future success.
www.bmetzler.org - it's not just a personal weblog, it's so much more.

I think that failure is interesting... (none / 0) (#3)
by hattig on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 11:52:48 AM EST

hattig voted 1 on this story.

I think that failure is interesting (and exciting for the people that are not involved in it). What images we remember in our lives are likely to be based on those which upset us or stressed us out most - probably things that were bad most of the time! I think this is due to the brain remembering details better in times of stress.

interesting stuff to discuss about... (none / 0) (#5)
by rajivvarma on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 12:41:10 PM EST

rajivvarma voted 1 on this story.

interesting stuff to discuss about

Rajiv Varma
Mirror of DeCSS.

Interesting.... (none / 0) (#2)
by ebunga on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 01:25:33 PM EST

ebunga voted 1 on this story.


Good thought provoking essay. Spec... (none / 0) (#1)
by rob on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 02:00:59 PM EST

rob voted 1 on this story.

Good thought provoking essay. Spectacular failures are always fascinating. But holding on to these failures is very important. A lot was learned from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster, Titanic, etc. But I understand that you are talking about an even deeper fascination than just learning from our mistakes, people are obsessed with these failures. It's human nature I guess. The question is what does this say about human nature?

Re: Why Do We Love Failure? (none / 0) (#7)
by Matthew Guenther on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 03:07:36 PM EST

This is sort of related to why people enjoy seeing things torn down, be they people, or institutions, or physical objects. The popularity of gossip publications, and especially scandals, as well as liability lawsuits and building demolitions are testament to this. I'm sure there's some huge psychological theory on why this is, my guess is we like to see people fail so we can feel better about our own accomplishments.

As to why we keep failures in the forefront in our minds so much, I figure it's because we have possibly learned that adage: "those who do not learn from history are condemmed to repeat it".

Of course, I could be totally wrong. :-)


Re: Why Do We Love Failure? (none / 0) (#8)
by rusty on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 04:27:57 PM EST

Ok, learning from history is one possibility that I considered, and I'm sure that's part of it. But that can't be all of it. I'm not a professional ballplayer, I don't even care about baseball. But Billy Buckner's monstrous error still stands out clearly enough in my mind that I could remember his name immediately when I sat down to write this story. Ask me any current player on the Sox, I wouldn't be able to name one. So if this memory is helping me learn from history, it must be in a way so roundabout that I can't figure out the path from "baseball error" to my own life.

If I were forced to take a guess, I think it would have a little to do with making us feel better about our own selves ("at least I didn't do that!"), a little to do with learning from history, and a little to do with some kind of primal destructive urge we all secretly (or openly) harbor (c.f. "Independence Day," destruction of major American landmarks in, and popularity of). Maybe more. I have a feeling that the human affinity for failure, if there indeed is one, is one of those crux behaviors that might tease out some of the really buried oddities in us, as a species, which is why I've been pondering this in the first place.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Re: Why Do We Love Failure? (none / 0) (#9)
by dblslash on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 06:50:39 PM EST

Sooo.. what you're saying is that it's some sort of Schadenfreude? That we simply enjoy seeing others fail? That's pretty damn depressing, man. If I can help it, I'd really rather not believe that everyone goes through life just waiting for somebody else to take a fall.

[ Parent ]
Schadenfreude (none / 0) (#10)
by rusty on Tue Feb 22, 2000 at 07:46:26 PM EST

Not so much that we're all just waiting for someone to fail. More like, when there is failure and destruction, we tend to revel in it, to a greater or lesser degree.

I don't find this idea depressing at all. I see it as more of a natural part of a cycle. For there to be creation, there must sometimes be destruction.

Did you ever see the TV show Fraggle Rock? Basically it was about these weird looking Muppets that live underground. Anyway, there were also these tiny guys called Doozers, that looked like little teeny construction workers, and spent all their time builting intricate crystalline structres out of little rods of clear sugar. The Fraggles would casually eat these whenever the urge struck them, of course destroying big pieces of the Doozers' work.

So in one episode, one of the Fraggles decides all this destruction is wrong, and convinces the others not to break the Doozers buildings anymore. After a short time of this, the caverns are virtually choked with Doozer buildings, and the Doozers themselves, with no more room to build, simply pack up and leave. The Fraggles realize their mistake, and gleefully trash all the Doozer buildings, the Doozers come back, and everyone's happy.

The moral being, of course, the oldest moral there is. To have the new, you must clear away the old. To know success, you must know failure. To see a zero, you need a 1 to compare it with. It's the cornerstone of the binary worldview that's drilled into most Westerners from their first breath.

That's not so depressing is it?

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Re: Why Do We Love Failure? (none / 0) (#11)
by Matthew Guenther on Wed Feb 23, 2000 at 12:01:57 PM EST

Hmmmm, perhaps. However I think that we're biologically wired to do everything we can to not fail (survival of the fittest and all that). People are interested in failures of people (and things) in areas in which they have no experience in and are unlikely to in the future (e.g. what percentage of people that are fascinated by the Tacoma narrows are mechanical/civil engineers?)

Another thing to consider is that many of these failures could not have been prevented. (Since I don't know anything about the Billy Buckner incident, but I do know about Tacoma narrows, I'll have to use it for my example). Although the Tacoma narrows failed spectacularly, and we know now why it failed, at the time it was built by one of the most respected bridge engineers in the world, according to the then accepted standards and calculations. Given this, there was likely no way that the disaster could have been either a) foreseen, or b) prevented, yet people still dwell on it today, decades after the fact. Perhaps this fixation on failure is a holdover from our earlier evolution; our brain "keeping us on our toes" so to speak, not allowing us to get complacent and possibly eaten. :-)

Another aspect of why this incident sticks with you might be that you felt an empathy for the player, in the same way that you might cringe in pain when hearing about someone else's painful experience. This happens all the time (if you pay attention you can notice it), even though nothing painful is happening to you. Since it was such a public/high profile humiliation, it could stay fresh in your memory for a long time.


[ Parent ]
Re: Why Do We Love Failure? (none / 0) (#12)
by nascent on Wed Mar 22, 2000 at 11:59:09 PM EST

Why do most people hate to see their friends get ahead, get a better job, improve themselves? Why do a great deal of people watch Jerry Springer, a show where people are regularly dumped on prime time television ...for a hamster or something similar.

Great minds take in failure as a lesson. Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Thank you, Jim Jones. Mediocre minds like to remember the failure so they don't feel so bad for dying without living.

Please pardon the melodrama, but...

It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt



Love that quote (none / 0) (#13)
by rusty on Thu Mar 23, 2000 at 12:02:21 AM EST

I've never read that TR quote before. That looks like something that oughta be tattooed backwards on half of all American's faces, so they see it in the mirror every damn day.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
Why Do We Love Failure? | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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