Monday, 14 November 2011

Fear of failure, or fear of success?

Leonardo Da Vinci used to be fascinated by ugliness. Legend tells how if he saw a really ugly person, he would follow them, perhaps at a discreet distance, perhaps at an indiscreet distance, and sketch them. I have often wondered whether the resulting sketches were actually of ugly people at all, or whether that is simply what Renaissance folk looked like. Whatever the truth, it can’t ever have been a ringing physical endorsement to find oneself tailed through town by Leo.

I mention this only as a self-indulgent reminiscence, made salient by the new exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci at the National. This one is off the scales - I haven’t been yet, for one of two reasons: I am either foolishly deluding myself that the hubbub will die down, and in a few weeks time I will be able to visit and have the place to myself, or I know that whenever I go I will have to stick my elbows out and get stuck out, and I am just steeling myself for the scrum. It’s the latter, definitely the latter.

Christina Patterson got me mulling things over this weekend with this article in the Independent ( : I knew about Da Vinci’s stalking habits (although I will probably find out that this was a lie peddled my way by an harassed teacher at school) but I did not know that he only ever finished about 15 paintings. And his experimental techniques with paints and pigments mean that much of his work has degraded badly, so that what we see today is only a shadow of his original work. And still he managed to be one of the most famous painters of all time. He inspires me and infuriates me in equal measure.

In talking about Leonardo’s propensity to try a lot of different things, and finish very few of them, Christina used that famous Samuel Beckett quotation ‘Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again, fail better.’

It’s brilliant. ‘Fail better’. Ballsing up with balls. But its bloody hard to do. Fear of failure is a paralytic; it stops us speculating - it can stop you even trying when it persuades you that it is much better to think you might not be good enough, than to know you’re not good enough.

One of the major hurdles is the definition of success: one of the attitudes we were socialised into at school was the belief that it was much better to achieve something good with indifference than run the risk of being seen to care and failing. I will confess without the need for subpoena that this is not a healthy attitude, but all too often these days, I see the opposite played out for our consumption: I don’t watch X-Factor, but if I did, I might see contestant after contestant pleading how much they want to win, without, apparently, having to spend any time developing the skills requisite for a sustained career in the entertainment industry.

Thomas Edison stated that in inventing the light bulb, he also learnt how not to make a light bulb 1000 different ways. He failed better with panache. Winston Churchill was similarly resilient, achieving his greatest triumphs at the end of a spectacularly long political career. Even Steve Jobs, who even in death defines the current technological zeitgeist was booted out of Apple in 1985, before returning in 1997, with some success.

Failure is not in itself a good thing, but it is an inevitability. Failure is an opportunity to learn something about yourself, something about others, and something about the way the world works. Fear of failure is that thing which stops you chasing your dreams, and forces you to make compromises you don’t need to make. Fear of success is that thing that stops you chasing your dreams because it means confessing the limits of your ambitions.

You are not the only one who has doubts, and you are not the only one who is afraid that one day someone will discover that they mis-marked every exam paper you ever took, and actually you didn’t achieve any of your qualifications. You probably won’t unify physics, and you won’t surpass Shakespeare, but there are a lot of possibilities in between, and it would be a shame to let fear of the what ifs stop you finding where you can get to. Let me know how you get on.

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