Nobody Asked Me But: Success and Failure are in the Eyes of the Beholder

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In one of Bob Dylan’s more obscure songs, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, the renegade poet sings, “there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.” It’s near impossible, even at the best of times, to understand what meaning Dylan intends to convey with his lyrics, but the words seem to imply that there’s a whole heap of grey area falling between our concepts of success and failure.

There’s a saying that goes “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.” This metaphor essentially demonstrates that the only way to find out whether an idea is a good one or not is by trying it out to see if it actually works. If it does, and people salute, we call it a success. If not, it is labelled a failure.

It is not often completely clear which one is which. A classic example of this occurred in 1970 when the Heinz Corporation decided it wanted to cut into the soup market, which was all but monopolized by the ubiquitous Campbell’s Soup brand. Heinz hired Stan Freberg, author, radio personality and genius in the creative advertising field, to oversee their ad campaign to promote their new product, Heinz Great American Soups.

Freberg’s vision was to go spectacularly B-I-G by producing the most grandiose television commercial ever seen. He hired Ann Miller, the tap-dancing star of the great MGM movie musicals of the 1940s and ‘50s and a symbol of “Old Hollywood” glamour, to strut her way through a Busby Berkeley style chorus line of dozens of scantily clad dancers. The commercial climaxed with the starlet belting out the Great American Soups theme song while busting her best dance steps atop a massive eight-foot-tall can of soup. The one-minute ad cost $154,000 to produce, and at the time became the most expensive commercial in television history.

The ad was shown to test audiences from all demographics across the U.S., who gave the ad the “thumbs up” and overwhelmingly claimed they loved it. The only problem was that when queried about the name of the product being advertised, the majority of responders answered “Campbell’s Soup.” The top brass at Heinz realized that if they carried through with televising the ad, they would only succeed in helping to market their main competitor, Campbell’s. Reluctantly, the decision was made to shelve the musical extravaganza commercial and absorb the financial loss.

Perhaps nobody embodies the “no-man’s land” between success and failure better than John George Diefenbaker, the 13th prime minister of Canada. “Dief the Chief” started off his political career on the right foot by winning a three-year term on the village council of Wakaw, Sask. in 1920. He did not win another election for two decades, losing twice in provincial constituency races (1929, 1938), twice in federal elections (1925, 1926), and once when he ran for mayor of Prince Albert in 1933. To add to his chagrin, he was also defeated the first two times he ran for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in ‘42 and ’48. Eventually he did win the leadership and held office as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963 (although he characteristically did lose the vote for leadership again on his last go-around in 1967).

I’ve had my own dealings with failure. One I remember particularly well was when I took my driver’s test at the age of 16 in Ontario. In my mind, this was going to be a major frontier I was about to cross in my development as a functioning member of adult society. I breezed through my learner’s permit test, registered for a driver training course offered by my high school, and took a few lessons with a driving instructor. I was so brash and confident in my driving ability that I let everyone at school know that I would be taking the road test just a few weeks after my birthday.

I was the picture of boldness and self-assuredness as I strode into the government compound where I would be taking my driver’s test. I was assigned an examiner who escorted me out to the vehicle I would be driving on this ground-breaking day. I made sure he noticed that I executed a deliberate walk around the car while making a mental checklist that there were no obvious danger signs to prevent me from getting behind the wheel. (Other than a flat tire or two, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be checking for, but it must have looked good because the examiner ticked a checkbox on the form attached to the clipboard he held in his hands.)

When he gave me the signal, off we went. I was really on my game. I made sure that I checked the rear view mirror every few seconds as we drove around the testing compound. My three-point turn and parallel parking attempts went perfectly and out of the corner of my eye I couldn’t help but notice a little smile break open on my examiner’s face. I shoulder checked for my blind spot every time I had to pull away from the curb or whenever I was asked to change lanes.

For the final part of the test, I was asked to drive out of the compound, pull onto the on-ramp of the nearby highway, and merge into the flow of traffic. Although I felt a surge of nervousness course through my veins as I pressed down on the accelerator to reach the necessary highway speed, I managed to mask my inner tension, and it was not too long before we pulled back into the compound. The examiner motioned me to park in one of the empty stalls near the office and was giving me the “thumbs up” sign when it happened. I was already in celebration mode and didn’t see that last stop sign before the entrance to the parking lot. I cruised through the intersection and was given an automatic failure. I was crushed. My shining moment had turned into the worst day of my life.

Nobody asked me, but methinks too much import is placed on whether we succeed or fail in life’s endeavours. The Heinz Corporation, Dief and the kid who flunked his driver’s test might choose to dispute that conclusion. After all, we still managed to make an impact, even though mine might yet be small! Run that up your flagpole.

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