We’ve spent more than 60 years dissecting Willy Loman, the character artfully sketched by Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman. Willy is, perhaps, America’s consummate loser, a failure to his family. But if you can bear with me for one moment, imagine he lived in current times, not amid the postwar prosperity of 1949. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house—he had just made the last mortgage payment—and had a wife and two children. Today he’d be a survivor.
Has our view of failure softened since Willy Loman’s day? In a country with a level of unemployment so high that it is likely to determine the outcome of the midterm elections, and where promotions, bonuses, and retirement savings seem like relics, failure is something many of us are wrestling with right now. But if we begin to accept that success is not a simple, upward career trajectory, this economic crisis may not just reduce the stigma of being sacked but transform the way we think of failing. Shocking as it sounds, failure can be a good thing.
It’s true, recessions can wreck self-esteem. In a nation built on success and a gloriously entrepreneurial spirit, the prospect of failure can make people fearful—and shameful—even when it is not their fault. “There is a crash in every generation,” wrote Arthur Miller in 2005, just before he died, “sufficient to mark us with a kind of congenital fear of failure.” Miller was commenting on a wonderful book by historian Scott Sandage called Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Sandage believes Willy Loman was a success. But the message of the play, he says, is that “if you are not continuing upwards, if you level off, you have to give up. You might as well not live.”
We did not always believe this. In his book, Sandage argues that America’s ideas about failure were formed between 1819 and 1893, as busts followed a series of speculative booms. Before then, failure was not associated with individual identity. It just happened to you. Bankruptcy was thought to come from overreach—living excessively—not from lack of ambition. By the end of the 19th century, says Sandage, failure had gone from being a professional mishap to “a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red.” Ralph Waldo Emerson encapsulated this in his journal in 1842: “Nobody fails who ought not to fail. There is always a reason, in the man, for his good or bad fortune.” By the middle of the last century, at the time Willy Loman was hawking his wares, Americans could not face “the possibility of defeat in one’s personal life or one’s work without being morally destroyed,” according to sociologist David Riesman. (Which may be one reason the suicide rate in the Great Depression was remarkably high.)
This foolish, dangerous idea is under assault right now. Should financial success really be a moral imperative? Why do we think that an ordinary kind of life is of lesser worth? Studies have found that our most potent emotional experiences come from relationships, not careers. Those who work in palliative care report that, on their deathbeds, most people don’t regret not having clambered a rung higher, but having worked too hard, and having lost touch with friends.
And history shows it is only when the economy is in the mud that Americans feel free to do what they want to do. As the author J. K. Rowling said so succinctly in her 2008 address to Harvard graduates, failure can mean a “stripping away of the inessential.” When she was an impoverished single mother, she started to write her magical tales: “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” This doesn’t mean it is an uplifting experience to be unemployed, of course. But it may mean we ease up on some of the judgment that springs from the false idea that a person without a job has not just hit bad luck or a poor economy—but is a failure. Having a job is hardly the only, or best, measure of a life.
It may also mean we can accept plateaus, understand that a life has troughs we can climb out of, and that a long view is the wisest one. A recession is a great reminder that all of us need to learn, as Samuel Beckett said, to “fail better.” Which means rethinking what we really want to do with our lives, who we want beside us, and how we measure worth. Think of poor Willy Loman. Today his grandchildren might be proud.
Julia Baird is a deputy editor of NEWSWEEK. You can follow her on Twitter here.