In the United States, a person who has failed in one or more activities has come to be labeled a loser — a “deficient self,” according to Carnegie-Mellon University historian Scott A. Sandage.
In his March 25 lecture “Welcome to Loserville: A Historian Talks about Failure,” Sandage used the historian’s lens to examine the shift in meaning of, and attitudes toward, failure in the United States — a nation that, paradoxically, defines itself in terms of optimism and success.
Sandage’s talk was the final public lecture (co-sponsored by Clark’s Department of History) of Clark’s Higgins School of Humanities spring-semester dialogue symposium, “Embracing Failure,” which examined the nature of failure from a range of perspectives.
Referencing a wide range of 19th- and early 20th-century documents including broadsides, letters, diaries, business records and illustrations, Sandage traced changes in the definition of failure and the implications of those changes for Americans today. He argued that failure, originally applied in the early 19th century to a person whose business activity had gone bad, gradually broadened to signify the whole self, someone we now refer to as a loser.
“Fundamentally,” Sandage says, “we have moved from [being] a country in which failure was defined as overreaching, being too ambitious, trying to do too much too soon, to a culture in which failure is defined as underreaching. Whereas previous generations thought of failure as a catastrophe, we think of failure more as aimlessness, plodding through life, having no goals.”
Sandage, who specializes in 19th-century U. S. history and the changing aspects of American identity, demonstrated how profound economic, demographic and social changes in the United States drove this shift in meaning. During the 19th century, the country’s economy transitioned from one based primarily on agriculture to one based on industry and investment, culminating in a race for wealth that marked the Gilded Age. Financial failure in some form was a fact of life for many Americans. According to Sandage, “failure was so common in early American life (as it is today), that any collection of family letters, diaries, or business correspondence would mention, if not the person who was doing the writing, family members who had failed.”
As Americans migrated from rural areas to more anonymous cities and spread across the continent, they increasingly engaged in business dealings with strangers whose credit-worthiness was uncertain. Responding to that need for certainty was The Mercantile Agency (now known as Dun and Bradstreet), which in 1841 began documenting the credit-worthiness of Americans. By establishing a vast network of informants throughout the country, the agency was able to create credit profiles for millions of Americans, profiles that were organized in meticulously indexed and cross-referenced volumes that could be viewed for a fee. The language of credit agencies used to categorize one’s credit status — words and phrases like “first rate,” “third rate,” “good for nothing,” and “deadbeat” — evolved into generalized labels for the individual as a whole. With no context for evaluation other than a credit report, it was easy to perceive a person not just as someone who had experienced failure, but as nothing more than the sum of those failures.
“We have become the outcome of our careers,” Sandage said. “The language of business has been applied to the soul.”
Despite evidence to the contrary — such as the frequent economic “panics” that punctuated the 19th century — there was a growing myth that failure in business was not, at least in part, the fault of speculators or the capitalist system, but was instead wholly determined by inadequacies in the individual. The 19th-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that businessmen were buying into the State Street (Boston) proverb that “nobody fails who ought not to fail.” Popular rags-to-riches stories like those of Horatio Alger reinforced that belief by ostensibly demonstrating that, in America, any man with enough grit and determine could succeed.
After the Civil War, Sandage explained, failure gradually democratized. As former slaves and women moved into the paid workforce and took increasing responsibility for their financial well-being, failure was no longer confined to white males. In fact, one did not have to be in the late stage of life before being judged a failure; younger people could be failures, too.
Sandage launched his talk by revealing how fear of failure haunted him during the 13 years he spent struggling to write his book “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.” Failure to complete the book successfully would have, he was sure, lasting repercussions in his professional and personal life. Reminding his audience that 13 years was also the time span of the American Revolution and the Great Depression, Sandage noted that, by the time “Born Losers” was published, “it was no longer the first word on failure in American history, nor the last.”
Sandage concluded his lecture by acknowledging that failure is an inevitable part of life, and he urged his audience to resist equating failure in life with failure of self.
“Accept that you failed,” he said, “but that’s not who you are.”