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Why failing is brilliant, and we should all do it more

Apply for that job you’re in no way qualified for! Fly that plane without a licence! What’s the worst that can happen?

Why failing is brilliant, and we should all do it more

I want to gore you with an inconvenient truth right off the bat: you are a failure.

You might be good at your job, your friends and family probably love you and you’ve never tried to dispose of faeces through a window on a first date, but are you really at the top of your game? Are you famous billionaire author Stephen King? Are you renowned racket-man Roger Federer? Are you Gherman Titov, the youngest person to go to space?

If yes to any of the above, then quite frankly it’s an honour to have you reading this and I apologise for calling you a failure. Also Gherman, I genuinely thought you were dead.

But if not, then I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life, you’ve probably felt like a colossal failure.

Perhaps it was when you discovered your boss was younger than you, or maybe the time you spent upwards of two hours photoshopping a great meme only for it to receive a solitary like and zero RTs. For every runaway bestseller, there are thousands of lousy manuscripts for space-based erotic thrillers, or hard-boiled detective novels (also set in space, and also erotic) hidden under beds, locked in drawers or in the hands of friends who promise, hand-on-heart that they’ll get around to reading it. 

I’m a failure. I’m happy to admit this, as the author of a book of “bad book ideas” which was recently published to give hopeful writers an idea of how not to write a book. Did I mean to fail when I pitched my (literally) dozens of ideas to publishers? Not really; I meant to become a successful novelist, quit my job and move to the country with a hundred and fifty sausage dogs.

This wasn’t my first rejection, and I’m no stranger to failure (I was once made redundant on the day of my ‘Welcome To The Company’ session) but getting a book deal on the proviso my actual ideas were so terrible was new level of failure, even for me.

But I have decided that the time has come for us to celebrate our shortcomings. Success stories are everywhere: from the rags-to-riches billionaires to the surprising-break-out stars. What about the average idiot who never achieves greatness? The mediocre artist, the solid 2:2 student? Surely (for most of us, anyway) it’s far easier to relate to those who have tried and failed miserably than those who managed to end on a high… I might be projecting.

To clarify, I’m not talking about those whose failure was subsequently followed by success. Any Google search for “famous failures” will throw up results like Harvard dropout turned Microsoft Money-Machine Bill Gates, or J.K. Rowling, whose manuscript for Harry Potter was rejected 12 times by publishers who I can only assume are still kicking themselves to death.

The people I believe are due our attention and admiration are the ones that have failed and failed again. To offer some examples, here are a handful of my favourite failures from which I draw a huge amount of inspiration, and you should too:

  • Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi discovered the jet stream in the 1920s and, in order to make sure that his findings reached the widest possible audience, wrote about them in Esperanto, the language of the (then) future. It was not the language of the future and the jet stream went widely unknown for another decade.
  • The Vasa, a warship completed in 1628, sank on its maiden voyage as it left Stockholm harbour, while locals and Swedish dignitaries were still waving it off.
  • The city of Timmins, Ontario built a $10 million museum dedicated to singer Shania Twain in 2001. Just 32 fans attended the inaugural convention and the centre was bulldozed in 2014.

These stories are now mostly remembered, not because either went on to be successful, but due to the scope of the failure, the breathtaking “ah, bollocks” defeat.

But while Oishi, the Vasa and whichever genius came up memorialising Shania Twain went into their endeavours hoping for success, there are many who embark upon a mission they fully know is destined for failure. These great people, or as they’re often known, ‘UK Eurovision entrants’, perhaps deserve even more of our support and respect.

If we only do things knowing they’ll succeed, or even with a sneaking suspicion that they might, we are missing millions of golden opportunities to fail spectacularly and hilariously. At the very least it’ll hopefully give you a couple of anecdotes for dinner parties.

Apply for that job you’re in no way qualified for! Fly that plane without a licence! What’s the worst that can happen? Failure? Great! Bore off with your story about how you “almost didn’t get a First at university”, we want to hear about the time you fell asleep on a lilo at West Wittering trying to ‘reclaim the Isle of White’ and had to be rescued by the coast guard.

Your constant failures might never lead to fame and success, but you never know - you might just get an ironic book deal out of it. 

Cal King is the author and idiot behind The French Exchange Whale And Other Rejected Book Ideas, a collection of his failed pitches to publishers