Effortless achievement has no place in these tougher times. We're more impressed by those who bear the visible scars of lost battles. Helen Kirwan-Taylor identifies this 'failure chic' as a backlash against mindless optimism.
It was Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, who said: 'If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.' Of course, he was speaking from the US, where attitudes to failure have always been more accepting than our own. After all, it is the country that gave us Homer Simpson, the patron saint of losers. Where else would it be possible to make a hero out of a man who claims 'Trying is the first step towards failure'? Back in Blighty, failure has been seen as rather distasteful, a blot on one's character. But times are changing: failure is now the new success. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of celebrities, where having one or two failures behind you - the more spectacular, the better - is a smart career move.
Take Angus Deayton. After his very public sacking from the BBC, he appeared as an after-dinner speaker, netting pounds 20,000 an evening. He has just landed a part in a movie called Making Waves and the BBC, for all the kerfuffle, has announced it won't be replacing him after all. Winona Ryder, the 31-year-old actress caught shoplifting at Saks Fifth Avenue, will now be the spring-line model for Marc Jacobs, the American designer whose clothes she was caught with. 'Of course it will be controversial, but not in a negative way,' the firm's president, Robert Duffy said.
Jeffrey Archer could give lectures in turning failure into success. This is a man who has built humiliation and ignominy into his career trajectory, yet prison has made him more bankable than ever. A Prison Diary is expected to earn pounds 200,000 in royalties, and his new book Sons of Fortunes could bring him a whopping pounds 10 million. Movie rights should put him high on the Sunday Times rich list.
It doesn't end there. Fergie, Johnny Vaughan (an ex-convict), David Beckham (remember his red card in '98?) have all bounced back. Perhaps the 19th-century American author and publisher Elbert Hubbard was right when he said: 'A failure is a man who has blundered but is not able to capitalise on the experience.'
Celebrity meltdown is one thing - we all like to read about famous falls from grace followed by triumphant comebacks. But is the same true of business people? In the UK, setbacks such as a redundancy - certainly bankruptcy - used to mean career death; now (with our US-style employment practices) they're worn as a badge of honour. 'Failure is a kind macho celebration,' says Rob Goffee, deputy dean of London Business School. 'It says you've got battle scars. When someone is sacked, it makes them significant. It implies they took risks.'
Says Yale law and management professor Gretchen Rubin, author of Power, Money, Fame, Sex: 'Failure is the price of being on the bleeding edge, at the forefront of something you take pride in. In the past, you never would have wanted to be branded a failure, but now it shows you're creative, a risk-taker. Entrepreneurship is the greatest virtue these days. It's what everybody praises.'
Virtually every entrepreneur has experienced failure (Walt Disney went bankrupt twice before he invented Mickey Mouse). In 1990, Nick Jones, the owner of Cafe Boheme, Soho House, the Electric Cinema and Babington House, owed his backers and the bank more than pounds 1 million.
His first restaurant venture, Over the Top, had gone badly wrong. 'It was a seriously bad concept,' he admits. 'It centred around the toppings, which were disgusting.' The bank tried to foreclose but Jones kept fighting. 'I was determined to get it right. I was also determined not to go bust. I couldn't walk down the street knowing I had made my suppliers go under.'
Jones found new backers and made another acquisition - Cafe Boheme - which took time, but it succeeded. 'The first five years were tough,' he says. 'I worried about the cashflow and how I was going to pay the suppliers. But it taught me a great deal about business,' he says. 'If I had been a success from the start, I would have failed - I would have gotten too big for my boots.'
In America, failure is not seen as disaster but as an opportunity to be exploited. This attitude has now spread to the UK. Sir Martin Sorrell was recently quoted as saying: 'There is never a better time to make necessary change happen and to develop the right strategy (than during this present recession). So it's time to strip down the aeroplane and start flying.'
Where the two countries differed until recently was on the subject of bankruptcy. 'The main purpose of personal bankruptcy in America is to protect the debtor,' says Roger Felber, the former chairman of Parkfield Group. 'The US bankruptcy process is instantaneous and the debtor immediately becomes free to apply for credit and start again. In the UK, the origins and practice of personal insolvency are different. The American system assumes misfortune, relief and assistance, whereas the English system has been built on the assumption that inability to pay debts implies at least immorality and recklessness, and probably worse.
'So a significant element of the English bankruptcy system is based on punishment. Until recently a public examination in court was held for all bankrupts with a minimum bankruptcy period of five years, recently reduced to three years and now to one year.'
Until the late 1800s, bankrupts were sent to debtors' prison and stayed there until someone might come along to pay off their debts. The stigma of personal insolvency was very real and the process cruel and painful.
Even today, a bankrupt cannot be a director of a company or manage a business.
'He cannot receive credit from anyone without first announcing his bankruptcy,' adds Felber. 'The penalty can be prison. At the ridiculous extreme, if a bankrupt orders a meal in a restaurant, he should, strictly speaking, first advise the headwaiter that he is a bankrupt, for he is about to take an hour or so's credit between starting to eat and paying for the meal.'
Felber knows of what he speaks. His company, which he built up over several years and was once valued on the London stock market at pounds 400 million, collapsed in 1990 and in the process he lost more than his total personal fortune. Felber put all his efforts into staving off personal bankruptcy by coming to an individual voluntary arrangement with his creditors, and three years later his personal debts were cleared. But the process was a bitter one.
However, if you can succeed once you can usually do so again. The second time is usually much easier (think of Alan Sugar). Felber, who over the years had done business with 3i, the largest UK venture capital business, obtained its backing to buy a business in 1993. They knew him and the Parkfield failure did not dissuade them from backing him. After a successful sale of this business in 1995, 3i backed him in a further management buyout, and then in 1998 Dresdner Kleinwort Benson brought Felber in as a consultant and shareholder in a buyout. Part of the attraction of Felber to institutions is his brush with failure as well as his success.
Failure's survivors are resilient and courageous. 'Those who bounce back often behave in an extra-punitive way,' says Marcus Buckingham, best-selling author of Now Discover Your Strengths, 'meaning if something goes wrong, they blame factors outside of themselves. They don't dwell. Dissecting is not helpful. You're at your absolutely worst when you've failed, so the answer is to think about the successes of the past.'
Says Goffee: 'If you're going to benefit from failure, you have to have the power of reflection. You have to build models. All the emerging literature shows that good leaders milk their experience. They're also good at admitting their own failure. Good leadership rests on the acknowledgment of incompetence.'
Failure comes in different flavours, from bankruptcy and public shaming to redundancy. This last is quieter but just as humiliating. Or used to be. 'After the internet collapse, people got used to the idea of redundancies,' says David Marshall, head of executive coaching at Mast International.
Add the 30,000 who've been laid off in the City and it seems almost normal.
'There's no stigma attached any more to getting the sack,' agrees Philippa Rose of the Rose Partnership, who herself came close to failing when she fell out with her business partner. 'It used to be the bottom 10%; now it's the bottom 40%.'
For many, the pink slip comes as a relief. It means no more hanging around waiting for another bonus before you set out to do what you meant to do in the first place. Nicholas Beart was working as an auditor at KPMG when he got called into the boss's office one morning in 1990. They handed him his pink slip and sent him on his way. 'There I was, thinking I'll ride the recession out and quit next year, and the bastards made the decision for me.'
But having been thrust out into the cold, he decided to do what he knew how to do well: tell others what to do. Beart and his partner William Kendall gave a new lease of life to Boden, The New Covent Garden Soup Company, Whole Earth Ltd, Green & Black's and, recently, the florist Moyses Stevens.
Beart now gets presents rather than threats from his bank manager. 'Put it this way: I'm a lot richer than I used to be,' he says.
His hiring practices reflect his entrepreneurial attitude. 'We're always looking for someone with negative experience,' he says. 'When I get a CV that says I went to Oxford then to Goldman Sachs, I'm 29 and swell, I think: totally useless. What we look for is where the applicant screwed up and how they got out it.'
The trick to failure is to milk it for all it's worth (Hugh Grant did a great job). As Professor Rubin says: 'Be sure to fail big - it makes you more important in the world. But don't remain a failure for long.
You must work and rework your magic to show the world that your last setback was simply the fault of bad timing, bad forecasts or bad luck, not any flaw of yours.' Above all, she advises, never, ever disappear. 'Invisibility is a fate worse than failure.'
Failure chic is partly a backlash against the tyranny of optimism. Dot.com madness showed that blind enthusiasm gets you nowhere, so you might as well be miserable. Dr Barbara Held, a professor of psychology in Maine and the author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, was one of many psychiatrists who attended a symposium in Washington entitled 'The Overlooked Virtues of Negativity'. This was a turning-point for the Prozac generation.
She and the anti-positivists believe in the magical power of defensive pessimism. This is a coping strategy that involves setting unrealistically low expectations, then mentally playing out all the possible outcomes of a given situation. Defensive pessimists have proved at least as effective as the strategic optimists, those who never think they're going to get the sack or wind up in prison. They plan their downfall ahead of time.
When it happens, they release the book they were planning, just in case.
Ernst Malmstem's Boo Hoo - A Dotcom Story from Concept to Catastrophe gave him a second bite of the cherry, as did the confessions of Jean-Marie Messier, the deposed head of Vivendi Universal. The newspaper promotion for the Messier extracts said: 'He has lost his job and is about to lose his luxury New York Home, but he is not going quietly.' He is a failure. Buy this book.
< HOW TO FLOP WITH FLAIR 1. Fail with a bang, not a whimper - if you make enough noise, people will remember you. 2. Reflect on and learn from your disaster. 3. Don't let one flop stop you from trying again - failing doesn't make you A Failure. 4. Avoid personal bankruptcy if you can - especially in the UK. 5. Flaunt your scars. They make you more marketable. 6. And remember ... 'Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly' - Robert F Kennedy