4 podcasts on how to understand and embrace failure

A selection of podcasts that dissect failure and make it a constructive part of culture and conversation

Vangmayi Parakala
First Published9 Jul 2024, 08:00 AM IST
It is not easy to own failure as it is to own one’s role in – or learn from – a clear success.
It is not easy to own failure as it is to own one’s role in – or learn from – a clear success.(iStockphoto)

There have always existed moral lessons and aphorisms about failure. Some are feel-good and infused with a strong self-help-like sensibility. However, hardly any are more realistic than the bittersweet one made famous by former US president John F. Kennedy after the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961. “Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan,” he said.

The sentiment prevails: it is not easy to own failure as it is to own one’s role in – or learn from – a clear success. Since May, however, Fail Better, a podcast by American actor and author David Duchovny, is shining much needed empathy on the subject. With a formidable lineup of guests – including veteran Hollywood actors Sean Penn and Bette Milder and the physician specialising in trauma and development, Gabor Mate – Duchovny has long and gently introspective conversations in his ASMR-friendly low, raspy voice.

The refreshing and candid honesty from the interviewees in Fail Better is only testament to the fact that there is value in understanding the different facets and layers to failure, how it could be understood–and possibly even embraced–differently than it usually is: whether hushed, tolerated, or overcome.

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The pilot conversation with actor and filmmaker Ben Stiller is personal and insightful, mining the most vulnerable and terrifying experiences of both interviewee and host through their creative careers. “You don’t die when you get an F,” says Duchovny in the introduction to the episode. He adds that he’s “so happy, now all these years later, to have gotten that F and to have been somewhat freed from the tyranny of pass-fail.” Stiller too makes interesting points about opportunity that failure made space for: “(The failure of Zoolander 2) ended up giving me the space (to work on different projects) because I didn’t really have a choice at the moment…so over the course of the next 9-10 months, I was able to develop this limited series, Escape at Dannemora (2018) that I don’t think would’ve happened (otherwise),” he says.

The episode with Mate from mid-May explores self-criticism and guilt, especially in parenting. “The last thing our children need from us…is a guilty parent,” notes the Canadian-Hungarian physicist. “They don’t want to be seen through the eyes of our guilt. Nobody wants to be seen as somebody else’s mistake…Guilt is very narcissistic…it keeps you from seeing the other person,” Mate adds.

Here’s a round-up of three other podcasts that dissect failure, making it a constructive part of culture and conversation.

Salman Rushdie on Elizabeth Day's podcast 'How to Fail', which aired last month.

How to Fail with Elizabeth Day

Author Elizabeth Day is a delight to read. She’s equally delightful as a broadcaster.

But why would celebrated writer Salman Rushdie – who holds, as Day says, a “position in the pantheon of literary greats” and whose “reputation transcends the literary world” – be a fitting guest for her show? On her 5 June episode, an especially engaging deconstruction of how even the most storied people must process messy life graphs that may not have always led to wins they’d aimed for, it is revealed that Rushdie considers becoming a novelist one of his biggest failures – he’d always wanted to be an actor.

In addition to talking about how initial failures in acting taught him about storytelling, Rushdie goes on to talk about his early writing struggles, especially how “deflating” it was the way his first book, Grimus, was “so dismissed when it came out”. He also notes a frustrating tragedy he wasn’t able to defeat: “After the fatwa, nobody ever talked about me as having any sense of humour. But I was still the same person…in the public mind, I got turned into a kind of writer that’s not the writer that I am,” he says, in context of the Satanic Verses being a novel more about London than about religion. “I would rather have had a different life,” he says poignantly.

The Rejection Podcast is now in its fifth season.

The Rejection Podcast

Currently on season 5, the podcast hosted by Sidney O’Reilly and Terry O’Reilly narrates the stories of how various big names – people, shows, movies, monuments – were all rejected before attaining the fame or good name they have attached to them today.

The episodes on the Eiffel Tower, David Chase’s show The Sopranos, Nina Simone and even AirBnb, are all examples of how getting into the stories of such ‘failures’ through history can help contextualise and record a cultural history of the failure itself, helping us reframe the word in our heads.

The latest episode from 27 June is a special “short story” episode, with the various rejections of actors Jennifer Aniston and Melissa McCarthy narrated as short stories.

Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure by University of Oxford

“There are as many ways to respond to failure, or the fear of it, as there are people”, begins one episode of a limited series from The University of Oxford from 2018.

The five episodes break down the idea of failure and include an episode on the feeling of professional failure when someone in academia chooses to leave it.

The first three episodes encourage listeners to reflect on the very idea of failure, while the last few focus on attitudes towards failure, mental habits or “attitudes to cultivate” to handle it. A meditative and therapeutic series.

All four podcasts are available on major streaming platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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All four podcasts are available on major streaming platforms including Apple Podcasts and Spotify

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First Published:9 Jul 2024, 08:00 AM IST
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