Review: Neither Fatal Nor Final

Canadians have a complex relationship with success and failure. That’s strange in a capitalist society where city life is a weekly succession of petty contests. Success is caricatured as a triumph of positive thinking that culminates in a prize, like winning on Dragon’s Den. Failure is a vaguely shameful exhibition of personal weakness: “The Morgans lost their house!”

Neither is accurate. Winners and losers strive, and even successful people fail all the time. Billy Durant, the Michigan wagon maker who created General Motors, went bankrupt in 1936 and ended his career as manager of a bowling alley. It must have been a well-run bowling alley. Successful people like to run things.

Canadian Failures is a quirky, likeable analysis of why we so often get success and failure wrong. “Speaking only of accomplishments is taking the easy road,” writes author Alex Benay, former Chief Information Officer for the Government of Canada; “Failures define us as much as successes; they shape our national DNA, our culture and our creative spirit.”

Canadians celebrate insulin, Bell Telephone, snowmobiles, the paint roller and Robertson screw, but this misses the whole point, writes Benay: “We latch onto success and fail our nation by not engaging in a dialogue on failure.” Canadian Failures is neither a self-help book nor a celebration of plucky upstarts. It challenges our concept of failure as “a formless grey sky”, and candidly notes: “Not all failures have a silver lining.”

Contributor Dr. Frank Plummer, senior advisor to the Public Health Agency of Canada, recounts the disastrous blood scandal of the 1980s that saw more than 20,000 people contract HIV and hepatitis C from tainted transfusions improperly screened by the Red Cross. It was a “monumental Canadian failure”, writes Plummer, “one of the greatest preventable tragedies in the history of Canadian public health.”

“When the stakes are high, short cuts are risky and can result in harm to patients, to reputations and to trust in the health system at large,” writes Plummer. “Stab-in-the-dark processes drain resources away from other options, and rarely succeed.”

Canadian Failures compiles varied personal stories that underscore compelling themes. Winners are competitors who often lose. Winners share an appetite for hard work, immunity to public ridicule, and knack for self-correction. These are not extraordinary qualities. You’ll find them on any successful minor hockey team.

Unsurprisingly, the most profound contribution to Canadian Failures comes from Erica Wiebe, Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler. “In sport, failure is all but guaranteed,” writes Wiebe; “I made mistakes, failed often, and accepted that failure was never fatal or final.”

Wiebe was cut from Cadet National Team camp, went a year without scoring a point in practice, overslept for a Senior Canadian National qualifying match, and failed to qualify for the 2015 Pan American Games. A week before flying to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Wiebe suffered a panic attack that left her sobbing on a bathroom floor. Wiebe describes this beautifully:

“Throughout my life, visualizing failure has been part of me. As a kid, I could imagine my house catching fire, and I would go through the various ways I could save myself and my dog and cat. (I guess my family members were going to be left to fend for themselves!) But, through those very early visualizations, I began working through possible outcomes. Later on, as an athlete, it was my ability to address failure and risk, and to persevere, that gave me strength to understand that failure is never final.”

By Holly Doan

Canadian Failures: Stories of Building Toward Success, by Alex Benay; Dundurn Press; 232 pages; ISBN 9781-45974-0433; $20

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