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Failure Is an Option. . .

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sometime late into Tuesday evening, many Americans will feel like losers. Some will have worked months, maybe years, to elect someone who is staring at defeat. Some will have invested a heaping helping of hope into John McCain or Barack Obama, only to face four years under the opponent. There will be tears, denial, anger.

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As this epic season barrels to a resolution, there is much at stake besides ideology and leadership. Namely: winning and losing. Success will send one side into shared ecstasy. Failure will deaden the other side with lonely grief. It will hurt.

"I would argue there's no starker dichotomy in American culture than in the idea of success and failure," says Scott Sandage, the author of "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America."

The sting of failure ripples through all aspects of life, yet we're quick to write it off, or deflect fault, or deploy banalities to soften the blow.

"There seems to be no way in American public life to talk about failure without resorting to cliches," continues Sandage, who also teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University. "Like 'You're not a failure unless you quit' or 'Failure is a learning opportunity.' They're kind of true, but they presume failure is always shameful. They presume failure is excusable only in the context of a continued all-out quest for success."

Sandage's book covers failed capitalist ventures from the past 200 years, a period during which Americans have broadened "failure" from a word that describes an outcome (as in, "a failed business") to a word that describes an identity ("I am a failure").

And it's this redefining of failure that gives people trouble, says Edwin Locke, professor emeritus of leadership and motivation at the University of Maryland. Just because you fail doesn't make you a failure.

"Some people may generalize a loss to dissatisfaction with themselves," Locke says. "But that's hugely mistaken, because not reaching a goal is limited to that goal. It's not a condemnation of your life."

Locke has researched goal-setting theory, which says that specific, hard-to-achieve goals produce better performance. He has found through experiments that people who set higher goals accomplish more but are more likely to fail. People who are terrified of failure set their goals too low, so they "succeed" by substandard markers but fail in a broader sense. The trick is to unleash a healthy ambition, set specific goals and remain resilient and adaptable in the face of failure, Locke says.

Sometimes hard work leads to failure, as Sandage writes in his book. It's an un-American reality, but Katie Fox-Boyd and Farah Ahmad know all about it. They worked hard to get John Kerry elected president in 2004. We know how that turned out.

Yet there they were a couple of weeks ago on K Street NW, canvassing through Grassroots Campaigns. They're working full time to get Obama elected. What if their guy loses again, despite promising poll numbers and everyone's best efforts?

"We say we're moving to France, but we don't have the money, and we love this country," says Fox-Boyd, 24, of Arlington.


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