What 2017 Said About America’s Relationship With Failure

By Justin Caffier on January 17, 2018

In an era where every facet of life seems touched and tainted by shittiness, be it in the form of evil governance, an exposed-as-toxic entertainment industry, or an economy that spells out a bleak future for everyone born after 1985, a silver lining is beginning to emerge. Americans finally seem ready to process failure in a healthy way.

For most of its brief, brash existence, the United States has shown itself to be a proud nation with a “winning” obsession that borders on fetish. A nation of upstarts, bootstrappers and entrepreneurs from the jump, it soon became our unofficial national motto that America and Americans don’t lose. So committed to this fiction were we that, as laid out in the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. stuck around in Vietnam for years, spending billions and ending countless lives, simply to spare itself the indignity of admitting defeat.

The circular nature of this pathology only exacerbated its negative effects. Like an Ouroboros asking for the salt, the motivations behind Americans’ prior inability to mea culpa is not too hard to understand. Despite countless historical examples of how this mindset proved detrimental or the universal professional consensus that owning up to failures is beneficial, America just couldn’t seem to shake this bad habit. The cutthroat "take no prisoners" mentality of our industries, where one slip-up can end a career, has spawned a generation of leaders who fight tooth and nail to deny mistakes, knowing they’ll catch no sympathy from the unforgiving masses.

Up until recently, the sort who would deny their fuck-ups to the bitter end would ultimately be forced to fess up when confronted with damning evidence. But in the wake of the sobering 2016 Presidential election, with a President and administration trading almost entirely in falsehoods, revisionist history and allegations of “fake news” levied against any unflattering facts, that is no longer a guarantee.

Fortunately, as indicated by his ever-tanking approval ratings, this attack on reality and inability to admit to failure has backfired tremendously for Donald Trump. Even amongst his most ardent supporters, the president is losing popularity, an indication that Americans may have finally reached their limit with this sort of delusional obstinacy. Perhaps this rock-bottom moment in modern American history was the catalyst needed to disabuse us of the notion that strength equals infallibility.

While it’s too soon to tell if this rejection of Trump constitutes a permanent lesson learned, glimmers of hope are beginning to emerge in the zeitgeist periphery that indicate an overall shift in our relationship with mistakes.

The Museum of Failure, a Sweden-based collection and celebration of ill-conceived products like “Bic for Her” pens, the Microsoft Zune and Colgate’s bizarre foray into microwavable lasagna, proved to be so compelling an attraction in its road tour across the U.S. that the company has announced plans to open up a permanent collection in Los Angeles.

As movie awards season ramps up, a film celebrating one of the worst movie failures of all time, The Room, is poised to rake in the accolades. Having already won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of delusional auteur Tommy Wiseau, James Franco uses The Disaster Artist to give pathos to a character who might’ve been simply ridiculed for his dogged commitment to his disaster of a film.

In a move that eclipsed his more Trump-like traits, Tommy Wiseau eventually learned to embrace and nurture the kernel of success within his failure of a film. But, by acknowledging and adapting, he has found the success he once dreamed of, even if it’s coming in slightly different packaging. The production and success of The Disaster Artist signals an audience now receptive to a flawed but contrite hero who evolves after having learned from their mistakes.

Most importantly, however, a recent development in the sexual-predator outing #metoo push, a wave of reckoning calling out even the aforementioned Franco, indicates that the movement is not simply the ruthless career-ending firing squad some might have feared. After former Community writer Megan Ganz called out showrunner Dan Harmon on his inappropriate workplace advances during her time under his employ, Harmon dove headfirst into ownership of his failures as both a boss and good person. In a seven-minute full-throated apology on his podcast, Harmon gives a full account of his misdeeds, never once making excuses for his actions.

After hearing the six-year-overdue apology, Ganz not only forgave Harmon but called his monologue a “masterclass in How to Apologize.” Praise was immediately heaped on both parties for their bravery and handling of the situation, with the exchange already being championed as the model to follow for those who wish to make real progress as the greater movement goes forward.

There are still myriad uncertainties over the horizon and only time will tell if this shift is just a flash in the pan or indicative of a larger trend. But, given the strides made in 2017 (and excusing the brief hypothetical indulgence of an Oprah 2020 presidential run), America seems finally ready to learn and grow from its mistakes.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter. Photo credit: The Disaster Artist.

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