In a world that so often seems to celebrate success, a few scholars at the University of New Brunswick are urging people to spend a bit more time examining its flip side: failure.
“Our personal lives, professional lives are full of it, and we mostly all feel pretty terrible about it. But as common as it is, we tend not to actually talk about it,” says Elizabeth Effinger, a professor of English at UNB.
Effinger has talked about failure a lot. In the fall of 2021, she taught an entire course devoted to it. The Art of Failure explored a wide variety of fails, and all the stigma and mess that comes with it.
“If we step into the shadows, what might we find there? Who might we become? Studying failure, thinking deeply, critically and creatively about failure, really requires us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said.
It sounds like a depressing topic — Effinger did check in periodically with her students to make sure they were doing OK — but there’s a lot to be gained from looking at what happens when things don’t work out, she said.
Effinger’s class considered literary works from William Blake to Samuel Beckett, but also branched out to look at failures across society, like commercial flops, particularly those enshrined in the online Museum of Failure, a site full of doomed products like the Google Glass or New Coke .
The class assembled their own failures in a final project, the Cabinet of Failure, a display that ranged from unsent love letters, to unread classic novels, to a list of extinct animals.
“People are talking about this as a time of the great resignation. How do we approach difficult situations? Do we sort of resign ourselves to things? Do we approach things with hope or despair? And I think creativity is required. This is the opportunity that failure can present us with,” Effinger said.
‘A place of possibility’
Few people have thought deeper about how failure can be an opportunity than Thom Vernon.
“It’s a place to say, hey, look at this… why didn’t it work? Let’s ask questions, let’s see what else might be possible,” Vernon, who took the Art of Failure course, said.
Vernon speaks from experience. He’s working toward his PhD at UNB, exploring how failure can be used in creative writing. “It really wants to reframe failure as a place of possibility, acceptance,” he said.
It’s the troubles and travails of his own life that sparked his interest in the subject. “My life is a failure,” he said.
For Vernon, his feelings of failure stretch back decades and delve deep into trauma.
In 1987, at the age of 23, just as he was coming to embrace his sexuality and launch an acting career in Chicago, he tested positive for HIV.
“The doctor told me, literally he said, ‘You’re going to die. Get ready. You’re going to die,'” Vernon said.
The doctor wasn’t being cruel, Vernon said; the AIDS epidemic was raging, the disease was little understood, and friends and family around him were succumbing.
26:10The F Word (no, not that one)
Vernon vowed to stay as healthy as he could, as long as he could and, surrounded by stigma, kept his diagnosis quiet, even as the years passed.
He moved to Los Angeles, kept acting and went back to university, sparking a love for academia and a desire to do a PhD — all while feeling he wouldn’t live long enough to see that happen. And he fell in love, a relationship marked by acceptance for his HIV diagnosis, but which presented another problem: his partner was an undocumented immigrant.
The couple eventually left the United States and settled in Canada, but this exile felt like another failure to Vernon, even as they embraced their new home.
Vernon said he’s had to spend time in tough situations and learn from their shame and stigma.
“Those experiences opened me to recognize patterns, dynamics,” he said. “That a failure, a quote unquote ‘failure’ is not about ending, it’s about acceptance.
“One has to accept failure. Accept that that’s part of the human condition. It’s part of living… as hard as it is.”
At 58, Vernon is now nearing completion of a PhD in failure. Part of that involves writing a novel that borrows some aspects from his own life from him, with another part a more academic look into the subject. He’s made a home in Fredericton with his partner, and he’ll also have another novel published in 2024.
But for all his work in failure, he doesn’t call it a success. “Success, to me, it implies an ending. … I feel, fulfilled.”