Early signs of success are no guarantee against failure
Early signs of success are no guarantee against failure
His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.
—The Great Gatsby,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The theme of Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic novel—failure and loss among the young, rich and seemingly carefree—is one that has marked works of art and fiction throughout the years. It is an equally compelling motif in real life.
Consider the case of Terry Popowich.
In 1984, at age 27, Popowich was in charge of a staff of 55 in the federal department of revenue. Four years later, still politically active, he was a highly regarded vice-president and chief economist of the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE)—a position that paid $120,000 a year. Popowich was a rising Liberal star who bragged to friends that he would be prime minister by age 40.
Then, the downfall. Popowich announced that he had been fired from his TSE position when it was revealed that he had listed a master of science degree from the London School of Economics on his résumé when, in fact, he had failed the academy’s final exams. And last May,
Ontario’s Peel Regional Police charged Popowich with 12 counts of fraud after a nine-month-long investigation of a recycling company he owned. The charges—which can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years upon conviction—will be heard next spring.
Popowich’s story offers a cautionary antidote to our fascination with success. While many Canadians achieve great things at an early age, countless others fail. Some fail magnificently; others do so in utter anonymity. But great and unmitigated success in life is, in fact, the exception; failure is one of life’s fellow travellers, a constant if unwelcome companion. Lor every hugely talented performer like Bryan Adams who finds a popular following, hundreds of would-be stars spend their entire careers singing in back-street cafés. Lor every professional hockey player who makes it to the NHL, scores more languish in minor leagues.
The reasons for failure are no secret: from flawed upbringings to
poor attitudes or sheer bad luck. And sometimes, high expectations and predictions of impending success in young people are themselves a cause for failure. Says Murray Smith, an Edmonton sports psychologist who works with the Edmonton Oilers and their American Hockey League farm team, the Cape Breton Oilers: “When these kids are growing up—especially in smaller towns—everyone tells them they’re great and they’re going straight to the National Hockey League. Then they wake up to find themselves playing in Utica or Sydney.”
North American culture accords dizzying fame, wealth and high honors to sports, political, academic, business and artistic accomplishment. And failure, its flip side, is a subject studied widely by psychologists, critics, human resources experts and the authors of a plethora of self-help books. Most agree on several points: North Americans are among the most success-oriented people in the world; failure is seen as a taboo and a subject of shame, even when the victim is not to blame. Ronald Scott, a partner in the Calgary offices of Peat, Marwick, Stevenson and Kellogg and a specialist in “outplacement counselling,” saw dozens of young, well-educated professionals lose their jobs in Alberta’s depressed Oil Patch last year. “There’s been so much downsizing in the energy industry that they’re taking people out at the peaks of their careers,” says Scott. “My view is that 100 per cent of these people—be it for one second or for two months—have this feeling that they were failures,” he says.
Paradoxically, Scott and others agree that failure, if handled properly, can be both an invigorating tonic and a learning experience. There are some “failures” who clearly see it in that light. “As I see it now, failure is largely a matter of attitude,” says Stephen Clark, who, at 22, while living on unemployment insurance, was elected mayor of Brockville, Ont., a job he held for nine years until 1991. Clark first tasted political failure in 1987, when he sought office in a wider political sphere, a search that began with the provincial Tory nomination for his riding of Leeds/Grenville. But at a delegate selection meeting in his own community, he recalls, “I didn’t even get the support from my own people. That devastated me more than losing the nomination.” Now 33, and managing a community weekly newspaper, he is more reflective. “I learned a lot from that,” he says. “You’re going to have roadblocks in life, but it’s your outlook on them that will make the difference.”
Others share that view. In a life crowded with achievement, Pierre Berton—successful author, editor, TV personality and columnist—has met few setbacks. But in 1941, when he was the 21-year-old city editor of Vancouver’s News-Herald, he went away to war. On his return four years later, he found the newspaper unwilling to give him back his old job. “I was mad,” said Berton in an interview last week. “And I was disappointed.” But months later, he found another position at the rival Sun, where he soon became known as one of Western Canada’s most noted young writers.
Berton’s advice to those who face an obstacle:
“Start again. Change jobs. Do something else.”
In dramatic contrast, John Diefenbaker, one of the most successful politicians in Canadian history, failed early and often. He began running for office in Saskatchewan in 1925. Six times, the dynamic young Prince Albert lawyer presented himself as a candidate for municipal, provincial and federal office before he finally won a federal seat 15 years later. By then in his 40s, he spent another 16 years as an Opposition backbencher, and twice lost races for his party’s leadership in that time. Wrote Diefenbaker biographer Peter C. Newman: “No Canadian politician ever rose so steadily through a succession of personal humiliations.” like Diefenbaker, Eli Bay, 46-year-old owner of a Toronto firm that teaches people how to deal with stress, was both decidedly confident and heroically patient. He had barely turned 30 when he started his business “without any credentials, without any money, without any business knowledge and with a one-year-old child.” At the time, the only listings under “stress” in Toronto’s Yellow Pages were for engineering companies. “It was four years before I took home minimum wage and seven years before I made a real living,” says Bay, whose TV series on stress now has been aired as far afield as Singapore and Ireland. But the word failure was not in his lexicon. “I always felt I was the riding the horse in the right direction, that I was slightly ahead of my time.” Easily said for those with Berton’s talent, Diefenbaker’s persistence and Bay’s self-confidence. But clearly none of them heard that still small voice—implanted in childhood—telling them that they were failures no matter what they did. Experts say that the inner voice is perhaps the greatest promoter of failure: self-doubt, even selfloathing, and the conviction that the successful persona that others see is, in a sense, an impostor. Says sports psychologist Smith: “Some of these kids finally get up there in the NHL and look across and see Gretzky or Lemieux and there’s this feeling that they don’t belong. Often the seeds for that have been planted long ago by adults telling them that they were no good, that they were stupid.”
In any case, success is not always all it is cut out to be, and often exacts a price of its own. Says Bay: “Often the people who are successful are going bananas, too. They’re cornered, they just don’t have any breathing space. I see that a lot.” Other “successful” people are workaholics and perfectionists who neglect their families, friends and their spiritual lives—everything but their jobs. Nor is fame an unmixed blessing. University of British Columbia psychologist Robert Tolsma, who has worked with film and sports personalities as well as models both in the United States and Canada, says: “Once you become famous, it’s almost like an addiction. And once you’re famous, you can’t really go home again.”
There also are people for whom successes, no matter how large, remain meaningless. “There’s something called the post-Nobel Prize syndrome,” says University of Waterloo psychologist Herbert Lefcourt. “People who win it have usually been trying to win it. But after the acclaim, then what? There’s often nothing left to do.” Lefcourt divides successes into two classes. Some achievements come from intrinsic and harmonious inner desire, such as a musician’s true love of the violin. But others come after relentless battles in pursuit of a goal people have set themselves. Says Lefcourt: “These are the people who are continuously trying to catch the gold ring, and who become so invested in it that everything else is cast aside.”
For the many Canadians who have met time and again with failure, that may be a meagre consolation. Unexperienced in success themselves, they still dream of it, wish for it, demand it—at almost any price. Sadly, for them a gold ring, however tarnished, is better than no ring at all.
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