Facing Up to the Ultimate Taboo -- Failure

William Ecenbarger won a Pulitzer Prize as part of the Philadelphia Inquirer team that covered the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

It was a numbingly familiar Super Bowl postgame show: seemingly endless coverage of the victorious New England Patriots afire with testosterone-fueled, fist-in-the-air, back-thumping jubilation and a fleeting, almost subliminal shot of an Eagles player, slumped under a yoke of grief, biting his lips to fight back the tears. The TV director must have thought better of it, for he quickly switched back to the Patriots and their 300-watt, gargoyle smiles. We saw no more of the losers.

But how fascinating it would have been to stay with them -- any fool can win, it’s losing that’s the challenge. Moreover, there’s a lot to be said for failure. It is so much more interesting than success. Success goes to the head, but losing goes to the heart.

After all, who among us has never lost -- in a job, in a relationship, on the tennis court? Losing is part of the price of life. It is the human condition, all of us born to sorrow. Born losers.


It begins early. Little League, science fairs, spelling bees. Later there are pink slips, unrequited love and, finally, death. Losing is a necessary part of competing. For every winner, there is at least one, and usually many more, losers. Losing is one of life’s constant companions, ever unwelcome, ever there. The Rolling Stones had it right -- you can’t always get what you want.

Nevertheless, losing is a taboo in our society. The ultimate put-down is “loser,” and failure is the ultimate f-word. Hundreds of books have been written on how to win; there are scarcely any on how to lose.

We forget that losers changed the world. Columbus missed his target by thousands of miles. Thomas Edison had most of his inventing triumphs before the age of 40, and in his later years he rolled up an ever-increasing number of failures. Mozart died impoverished and was buried in the pauper’s section of the cemetery. Most of the first edition of “Walden” was remaindered into Thoreau’s personal library. Churchill distracted himself from defeat with painting, writing, gardening and breeding butterflies.

Winner worship is embedded early. Children returning from games are asked whether they won or lost, when they should be asked whether they had fun, or asked nothing at all. Parents often play games with their children and allow them to win, ill-preparing them for the game of life. Some educators feel that flunking a class is so detrimental to self-esteem that they move children along to the next grade and to bigger failures to come.

Nowhere is winner worship and loser-loathing more evident than in sports (Vince Lombardi, Leo Durocher and Billy Martin all had bad things to say about losers) or in that other great arena: politics. Few losers suffer more acutely than defeated candidates. Jimmy Carter was stunned by his landslide 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan, and for about five years he all but vanished from the national political scene. He took no part in the 1984 presidential campaign -- even though his former vice president, Walter Mondale, was running against Reagan. Several years after he too was swamped by Reagan, Mondale was asked how long it took to recover. “I’ll let you know when the grieving ends,” Mondale said.

We could pay a terrible price for our loser-loathing. We are a country founded by people who faced down death to start anew, but we could be reduced to wimphood. What better way to avoid losing than to never enter the fray? Americans still revere the image of the lone cowboy, riding off into the sunset in search of his destiny. But how many of us are timid couch potatoes, spectators at the game of life, content to see the spotlight on the winning team, to forget about the other side of every zero-sum transaction?

Americans need to confront their losers and their losses. Something as universal as failure deserves our attention. It has its positive side. For one thing, you’re among friends. Winning isn’t always worth its weight in blue ribbons, and losing can be positive and ennobling if it compels us to examine why we lost. After all, it is the way we learn and the way we live.