William D. Waltz

from Twilight of the American Idols, or What Doesn’t Kill You, Me, and Kelly Clarkson

They say the Eskimos and Inuits have dozens of words for snow and ice. We have an avalanche of words for failure, and, yes, some of them are colorful. If our desire for success is the great white shark that propels us through life, our fear of failure accompanies us like the remoras that attach themselves to the shark’s underbelly. And, then, with almost inextinguishable hope, we steel ourselves with something akin to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose line from Twilight of the Idols, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger,” has even made its way into the American Idol songbook with Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).”

We get a more complete picture of our relationship to failure when we consider how attitudes have changed since F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Resurrecting careers is a billion dollar industry in today’s America. From Robert Downing, Jr. to Lindsay Lohan, it seems we appreciate the second (or third) coming of those who have wallowed in the mud after they have worn pearls. Maybe it’s the messianic storyline, or maybe it’s the love of humiliation, which reality-television specializes in, for even shows such as *Survivor*, whose contestants are actually trying to win, the show focuses, almost by definition, on the losers and how they fail in terms of strategy and of character.

A penchant for voyeurism and a healthy dose of schadenfreude compel all but the saintly among us to watch train wrecks like The Real Housewives of New York. But perhaps something else is behind the fascination. Perhaps real life bloopers serve as an antidote to the glut of airbrushed and packaged products that flood our daily lives. Still, for my money, I’d rather the see the last discarded draft, the abandoned score, the crumpled blueprint that preceded the masterpiece. It’s the failure that comes before eureka that interests me most.