Epic Fail: Can you really make every failure into a success?

lipstick pig

Maybe you can’t put lipstick on every pig?
(image courtesy Karen Roach)

Here at Idealist, we think there should be more conversations about what happens when things don’t work out. Recently, we’ve touted the benefits of making the most of your mistakeslearning by doing, and knowing when to quit—because even the best-laid plans, well, you know.

And we’re not alone. In this week’s The Atlantic, political columnist Liza Mundy suggests in the article “Losing Is the New Winning” that there’s never been a better time to admit your shortcomings and own up to your mistakes. It used to be the case that a big enough scandal could ruin your reputation forever, but we’re starting to notice that failure (if you’re honest about it) is actually kind of hot right now.

Mundy suggests we’ve entered a time when many public figures are rebranding their mistakes as opportunities for personal growth—and it’s working. She cites former New York state governor Eliot Spitzer’s current campaign for New York City comptroller as an example. He’s taking his questionable gubernatorial ethics head-on in his campaign ads by stating flat out, “I failed. Big time.”

Politics isn’t the only arena with leaders who have (or should) come clean when they mess up. One particularly memorable scandal is Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson’s financial mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute. Mortenson’s refusal to take full responsibility for any wrongdoing has prompted even more criticism of his organization, including Jon Krakauer’s article “Is It Time to Forgive Greg Mortenson?” in The Daily Beast this past spring (hint: until he’s honest, the answer is still ‘no’).

Admissions of guilt—even when they reveal something uncomfortable or unethical—are important to help repair one’s credibility with the public. But Mundy suggests that our willingness to forgive and forget scandals might be because as Americans, we have a certain ‘soft spot’ for fresh starts:

As the historian Robert Dallek pointed out to me, overcoming failure—bankruptcy, addiction, dissolution, defeat—is part of the quintessential American success story. Failure narratives resonate with all sorts of deeply held cultural tenets, from Christianity’s focus on forgiveness and rebirth to the frontier mentality’s emphasis on prevailing over obstacles both external and internal, including our own imperfect selves. Still, some eras seem to crave stories of redemption more than others. It seems no accident that after a punishing half decade in which failure descended upon millions in the forms of foreclosure, job loss, factory shutdowns, workplace realignment, growing economic inequality, and dwindling options, we delight in hearing that NASA, according to Dweck, prefers to hire aspiring astronauts who have failed and bounced back, rather than those who have enjoyed easy successes.

While stories of public figures or politicians overcoming shame and coming back from failure can certainly be compelling, there are still situations where giving second chances is downright crazy. Mundy raises the more complicated question of where we draw the line:

When is a public figure’s failure a sign of abiding character flaws, and when is it a harbinger of growth? When is an attempted comeback a marker of tenacity, and when is it a red flag signifying a delusional lack of self-awareness?

What do you think the current popularity of failure stories means for leadership in the social good sector today? Can you tell us about a time when you admitted your mistakes and kept going, or when you decided to cut your losses and quit a project following a big fail?

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Comments (1)


  1. Suzanne writes:
    October 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Great article, I find the prevalence of failure stories in the media interesting as well.
    I think the ability to allow others to fail without judgment and to forgive is very noble and a great step toward people working together for a greater cause. Leaders for the greater good will sometimes make mistakes, because they are human. If they acknowledge their mistakes and really do learn from them, they can contribute more solidly toward their greater good of choice. And as a leader, their humbleness and willingness to acknowledge their imperfection will make them stronger and more admired leaders. We should all focus on forgiveness, acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them.


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