09 Feb 2014

“Fail Better”

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Samuel Beckett, circa 1970

Mark O’Connell explains, in Slate, how one line buried in one of Samuel Beckett’s obscure modernist works of prose pessimism rather miraculously escaped its confined context to become adopted as a Zen slogan by optimist achievers in Silicon Valley… and on the tennis circuit.

Stanislas Wawrinka’s defeat of Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open last weekend was a milestone not just in the career of a 28-year-old Swiss tennis player but also in the posthumous life of one of the 20th century’s most unswervingly pessimistic writers. This is the first time a Grand Slam title has ever been won by a player with a Samuel Beckett quotation tattooed on his body (barring some unexpected revelation that, say, Ivan Lendl got himself a Waiting for Godot–themed tramp stamp before beating John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final). The words in question, inked in elaborately curlicued script up the length of Wawrinka’s inner left forearm, are these: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The quotation is from Worstward Ho, a late, fragmentary prose piece that is one of the most tersely oblique things Beckett ever wrote. But those six disembodied imperatives, from the text’s opening page, have in their strange afterlife as a motivational meme come to much greater prominence than the text itself. The entrepreneurial class has adopted the phrase with particular enthusiasm, as a battle cry for a startup culture in which failure has come to be fetishized, even valorized. Sir Richard Branson, that affable old sage of private enterprise and bikini-based publicity shoots, has advocated from on high the benefits of Failing Better. He breaks out the quote near the end of an article about the future of his multinational venture capital conglomerate, telling us with characteristic self-assurance that it comes “from the playwright, Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly.”

Hat tips to Steve Bodio and the Dish.

Wawrinka‘s tattoo.

One Feedback on "“Fail Better”"

K. Narayan Kutty

While watching Stanislas Wawrinka playing Nadal in he A O. Finals, I head
a commentator drawing his viewers’ attention to the Beckett quotation on he Swiss player’s left arm. The quote was
familiar, but not its source. But I did say to myself that Stan had no idea of the
context of the quote. Still I was thrilled
to see Beckett’s words on the forearm of
a tennis champion.

I am a Beckett scholar; in Jan. l985, four
years before the great Irish-French writer passed away, I interviewed him
in Paris. I will never forget that interview.
Tears welled up in his eyes while he spoke to me about his mother.

And the usually placid Sam’s speaking
angrily about the way Jo Anna Aklaitis
and Robert Brustein changed the
sets for “Endgame” for their American Repertory Theater production was a
memorably striking moment during my
interview with him.

Beckett was very kind to me: He even asked me about my mother.


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