Was she successful or not in the Dutch TV show ‘Wie is de Mol?’? Philospher, author and TV producer Stine Jensen left in the seventh episode of ‘her’ season (2018) while everyone in the Netherlands thought that she was the ‘mole’. “I later tried to turn this into a success by claiming that I was using my clumsiness to mislead viewers. I can say here that I was really quite slow and blundering and this really showed in the programme. That I was not the ‘mole’ is one of the biggest achievements on my CV. I was not it, a negative identity. I turned it into my own success story. You students can do that too when you go looking for that wonderful job.”
Jensen immediately set the tone on failing or succeeding with this anecdote on Monday 4 October at her lunch reading about ‘failure courage’. The reading was held to mark the 50th anniversary of TU Delft psychologists. The angle was what is failure and what role does it play in our success and performance driven society?
‘Nowhere are there such strong sanctions on failing as in science’
In about an hour the philosopher dissected the hype of the ‘fail diaries’ on social media – “these are about the likes and the earnings model, while really failing hurts a lot”. She laid bare why failing politicians generate so much anger – “today’s failed democracy is a sign that there is something seriously wrong with the power system in the Netherlands” – and pointed to failing as a function of the ‘third eye’ – “failing exposes the bar that you did not achieve, in other words, the norm. This is why failing is a subject for philosophers.”
Not a disgrace
So how can/should people at TU Delft use this philosophical view on failure? Jensen confirmed one of the students’ observations that it is still a no go in science to be open about failing. “Nowhere are there such strong sanctions on failing as in science,” she said. This can put excessive pressure performance – just ask the student psychologists.
Jensen emphasised that you can also view your failures as Twan Huys, the well-known NOS news correspondent and journalist who flopped as an RTL channel talk show presenter, did. As Huys himself described, “It was an adventure and every adventure involves risks. No mountaineer knows up front if he/she will reach the summit.” So look at it more like the Americans for whom failure is not a disgrace, but a natural part of the journey to success.
Jensen urged the audience to regularly make time to mess around, just like the world famous star chef René Redzipi (of Noma in Copenhagen). For him, doing so is the best way to get away from excessive pressure and expectations. “Experiment, reflect, look at yourself kindly and make sure you have ‘messing around’ time,” advised Jensen.
Her last tip was to try to avoid defining things in terms of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as these words are implicit value judgements.