I have always felt that Elizabeth Day’s podcast betrays its own premise. How To Fail promises a celebration of things “that haven’t gone right”, with guests exploring “what their failures taught them about how to succeed better”, to quote the show’s own blurb. Arguably it only does one of these things.
Rather than lauding failure for its own sake, the podcast uses it as a foil for success. The guest list only includes people who succeeded in life overall, whatever temporary setbacks. Their only real failure is that they can’t fail properly.
I accept that a podcast with randomers talking about how their dreams died and stayed dead may not attract the earholes that Day’s celebrity roll call does. But most of us who aim high end fall to more banal circumstances, schlepping through ordinary jobs and ordinary lives until we die.
Such people have no podcast, but they at least have the attention of an old classmate of mine, Kieran Kenlock. Kenlock was a talented footballer at school, and had a run with the youth programme at Crystal Palace FC. However, he didn’t make it as a professional.
It was the end of the road. And just like that, my dream was over. I cried, I cried so hard that night, I was inconsolable. There was a knot in my stomach that even to this day I can still remember.
Sport has always struck me as especially cruel in dividing winners and losers. Most fields in life allow for second chances or even late success stories, and don’t require you to be a prodigy by 16, but modern sport is ruthless. According to Kenlock, of the 1.5 million boys who play organised youth football in England, a mere 180 will make it as a Premier League professional, or 0.012%.
Those are bad odds to stake a life on, even if many dropouts never wanted to go pro. I suspect the figures are similar in many other competitive sports, as well as music, film, journalism and much else besides. Elites are necessarily small, exclusive groups, and the vetting is harsh.
Westerners live in status-seeking societies, and humans are probably naturally inclined towards getting one over on their peers. I heard the other day about a tribal society that mocks hunters who bring back big kills precisely to discourage such competition, but it’s difficult to curb such instincts.
Meritocracy is the bargain we’ve struck with this, for now. The system is efficient in a sense, although whether it’s fair is dubious. Given what we’re learning about genetics and luck it’s arguable that the system merely piles rewards on those who’ve already won John Rawls’ lottery.
We lavish a lot of attention on the winners, and think less about the consequences for the losers, as Kenlock argues in kinder terms. There are a lot of people fairly crushed to find they haven’t made the grade, and only some of them pick themselves up afterwards.
Such winner-take-all dynamics recoil at the other end as elite lawyers, bankers and whatever else are forced into slave-like devotion to their fields. The Economist has written for some years about working hours accruing at the top while middling positions are cut – along with commensurate pay imbalances.
I’m unpersuaded the talent disparity between the 1% and the rest of its decile justifies how we divvy things up. But even if it did the costs to society seem bad, perhaps even contributing to political stability as sub-elites jockey for position with those that were just a little better than them.
Yet however we order things, it will remain true that our reach often falls short of our ambitions throughout life. A society that discouraged wild status-seeking would still need to put some people above others in government, sport and much else. And so there will always be people like Kenlock who didn’t quite make it.
As such, the best advice I can muster comes via the American comedian Tom Segura. “As long as you accept your dream might not go exactly as you plan, you will still feel fulfilled by the pursuit of your dream,” he told the audience in his latest special, Ball Hog. And with that, Merry Christmas.