"What Europe can learn from America: failure!" That title appeared on the cover of Wired magazine last year and it has stuck in my head. Not a month goes by without business magazines like Wired and Fast Company reminding us that failure isn't always bad, ugly and painful. It can also be good for us. To prove their point, these magazines often tell the story of people like Sir James Dyson and his best-selling vacuum cleaner. "It took me 5127 prototypes before I got it right", he once said in an interview. "And I learned from each failure."
Embracing failure seems a popular topic lately, not only in the creative and entrepreneurial world where 'fail early and fail often' seems to be the core principle. In his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman writes that we have come to overvalue success and optimism in a world where we're forced to always look on the bright side of life. Burkeman, who calls himself a natural born pessimist, argues how and why we should let failure, insecurity and pessimism back into our emotional menu as part of an alternative 'negative' path to happiness.
My favourite parts of the book are where he writes about techniques like 'visualising the worst-case scenario' or 'deliberate self-humiliation' – techniques borrowed from psychology and ancient Stoic wisdom. What's the worst that can happen to you when taking a specific action? How would you tolerate embarrassment?
"Negative visualisation generates a deep calm", Burkeman writes. In his book he tries to reach this calm by undergoing one of the most terrifying moments of his life on London Underground’s Central Line. "As we approached Chancery Lane Station on an ordinary Spring morning, but before the automated voice announced this fact, I had planned to break the silence and proclaim loudly the words 'Chancery Lane'. As the train continued to Holborn and beyond, it was my intention to keep announcing the name of each station."
Burkeman is aware that this is not the most frightening thing imaginable. Yet the fact remained that his palms were sweating and his heartbeat was accelerating.
His experiment is funny even though the outcome is pretty predictable: hardly anyone pays attention to him talking out loud. It underlines the main conclusion of his book. That sometimes it's only about changing your default settings and realising that preparing for the worst-case scenario might be more productive than positive thinking.
Of course negative thinking might not be helpful when you experience real trauma. Burkeman's point is not that we should always look on the dark side of life, but sometimes it might help to get a sense of perspective on the small stuff. Overcooking the pasta or having a bad job interview is not the end of the world.
In a way it reminded me of the brilliant commencement speech the author David Wallace Foster once gave at the Kenyon College class of 2005. In his speech, This is water, he reflected on the ordinary difficulties of daily life, the many little unsexy situations no one ever warns you about at your graduation party (traffic jams, queues at the supermarket, putting out the bins). And how changing your default settings – of course you're stuck in a traffic jam at eight in the morning! what did you expect? – could help you through life without wanting to punch the wall.
I think the Olympics should have medals and a podium for the most beautiful losers.
Elke Lahousse is a Belgian journalist. Oliver Burkeman will be speaking with Paul Watson on 'Is failure and alternative Olympic value?' at The School of Life on Wednesday 20 June 2012. For tickets click here
Image: BBC archive