“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better”: How Samuel Beckett Created the Unlikely Mantra That Inspires Entrepreneurs Today

Image by the Bib­lio­thèque nationale de France, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

To what writer, besides Ayn Rand, do the busi­ness-mind­ed techies and tech-mind­ed busi­ness­men of 21st-cen­tu­ry Sil­i­con Val­ley look for their inspi­ra­tion? The name of Samuel Beck­ett may not, at first, strike you as an obvi­ous answer — unless, of course, you know the ori­gin of the phrase “Fail bet­ter.” It appears five times in Beck­et­t’s 1983 sto­ry “Worstward Ho,” the first of which goes like this: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No mat­ter. Try again. Fail again. Fail bet­ter.” The sen­ti­ment seems to res­onate nat­u­ral­ly with the men­tal­i­ty demand­ed by the world of tech star­tups, where near­ly every ven­ture ends in fail­ure, but fail­ure which may well con­tain the seeds of future suc­cess.

Or rather, the appar­ent sen­ti­ment res­onates. “By itself, you can prob­a­bly under­stand why this phrase has become a mantra of sorts, espe­cial­ly in the glam­or­ized world of over­worked start-up founders hop­ing against pret­ty high odds to make it,” writes Books on the Wall’s Andrea Schlottman.

“We think so, too. That is, until you read the rest of it.” The para­graph imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing those much-quot­ed lines runs as fol­lows:

First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the oth­er. Sick of the either try the oth­er. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Some­how on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where nei­ther. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Bet­ter again. Or bet­ter worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where nei­ther for good. Good and all.

“Throw up for good” — a rich image, cer­tain­ly, but per­haps not as like­ly to get you out there dis­rupt­ing com­pla­cent indus­tries as “Fail bet­ter,” which The New Inquiry’s Ned Beau­man describes as “exper­i­men­tal literature’s equiv­a­lent of that famous Che Gue­vara pho­to, flayed com­plete­ly of mean­ing and turned into a suc­cess­ful brand with no par­tic­u­lar own­er. ‘Worstward Ho’ may be a dif­fi­cult work that resists any sta­ble inter­pre­ta­tion, but we can at least be pret­ty sure that Beckett’s mes­sage was a bit dark­er than ‘Just do your best and every­thing is sure to work out ok in the end.’

But if Beck­et­t’s words don’t pro­vide quite the cause for opti­mism we thought they did, the sto­ry of his life actu­al­ly might. “Beck­ett had already expe­ri­enced plen­ty of artis­tic fail­ure by the time he devel­oped it into a poet­ics,” writes Chris Pow­er in The Guardian. “No one was will­ing to pub­lish his first nov­el, Dream of Fair to Mid­dling Women, and the book of short sto­ries he sal­vaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold dis­as­trous­ly.” And yet today, even those who’ve nev­er read a page of his work — indeed, those who’ve nev­er even read the “Fail bet­ter” quote in full — acknowl­edge him as one of the 20th cen­tu­ry’s great­est lit­er­ary mas­ters. Still, we have good cause to believe that Beck­ett him­self prob­a­bly regard­ed his own work as, to one degree or anoth­er, a fail­ure. Those of us who revere it would do well to remem­ber that, and maybe even to draw some inspi­ra­tion from it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Inspi­ra­tion from Charles Bukows­ki: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crap­py,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Start Your Day with Wern­er Her­zog Inspi­ra­tional Posters

The Muse­um of Fail­ure: A New Swedish Muse­um Show­cas­es Harley-David­son Per­fume, Col­gate Beef Lasagne, Google Glass & Oth­er Failed Prod­ucts

Why Incom­pe­tent Peo­ple Think They’re Amaz­ing: An Ani­mat­ed Les­son from David Dun­ning (of the Famous “Dun­ning-Kruger Effect”)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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