Why there is Value in Being a F***-Up
It doesn’t take long to develop. The stench of the fuck-up, I mean.
For some, it’s a near-immediate branding. You leave the womb a loud, tempestuous thing. Or else you’re quiet, brooding, sulking, strange. You laugh at inopportune times. You fail to learn the secret handshake practiced by polite society.
For others, it develops gradually. Your grades suffer as you move into teenagehood. You miss curfew. Your dating life sews discord within the family. Or your drug use. Or your impropriety.
The mask slips. You’re no longer cute, easily excusable. No, now you’re a problem. An eyesore. A liability. A blight on the family frame.
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I’m sure it’s obvious I’m speaking from experience here. I fall into the latter category, but I identify with all kinds, all strains. All fuck-ups, I mean.
If I can offer any advice, it’s this: Don’t let your fuck-up status petrify into a victim narrative. It’s an instinctual bent, I understand. You might fall prey to it in your teenage years or early twenties, but don’t let it linger. Trust me. As long as you soak in self-pity, you’re doing yourself a massive disservice.
You should also know that—much like anything in life—embodying the fuck-up is not all bad. Stay with me. There’s wisdom on the other side of it.
There is great wisdom to be found in failure.
Fuck-ups are keenly aware of their shortcomings and unflattering qualities. And, if they’re evolved, they will have accepted and integrated these darker elements.
In A New Earth, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes, “The ‘normal’ state of mind of most human beings contains a strong element of what we might call dysfunction or even madness. Certain teachings at the heart of Hinduism perhaps come closest to seeing this dysfunction as a form of collective mental illness. They call it maya, the veil of delusion.”
Delusion and dysfunction are inherent elements of the human condition. Many people remain in denial of this. Fuck-ups, however, confront these elements early and often. In grappling with these universal shadows, the fuck-up is no longer in denial that they exist. This may not sound like much, but, believe me, this act of acknowledgement is more than most can say for themselves.
Standing on the outside allows space for innovation.
Once you’ve diagnosed yourself as a fuck-up, you no longer risk falling from social grace. You’ve already met the ground. In other words, conformity is no longer a viable option. Sure, you can continue to appeal to it, but it will likely continue to feel alien to you. This is a beautiful thing. Alternatives abound. Seek them.
When you’re no longer anxious about pleasing or appeasing, you’re liberated to pursue your passions as you see fit.
Failure begets an interesting life.
Succumbing to one’s shortcomings is tragic, but living in denial of one’s shortcomings is both dull and inauthentic. Failures beget complexity, dynamism, opportunities for self-reflection and personal evolution. Failures meet you with a cracked hand mirror and demand that you do something about it.
Failures are catalysts for change, and change is interesting. It spins an interesting life. This basic truism was illuminated in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain when Bourdain says, “Had I not known what it was like to really fuck up, that obnoxious but wildly successful memoir I wrote wouldn’t have been half as interesting.” True, Bourdain met a tragic end, but he had a point. Engaging stories are driven by conflict.
Once you’ve failed the system, you can meaningfully look at how the system has failed you.
Fuck-ups, nonconformists, and malcontents are vital members of society. Why? Because they acknowledge and condemn the elements of society that many adhere to without question. There are countless historical figures that we celebrate today who were once social pariahs. In fact, they’re littered throughout every realm of society.
One of my favorite literary examples of the fuck-up is the character Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. His very name indicates his role in this classic play.
By Biff’s father’s standards, Biff is a failure. And yet, he is closer to contentment than his conventionally successful family members. In spite (and because) of his failures, Biff has a better sense of himself and the world at large.
Towards the end of the play, Biff addresses his suffering, prideful father, Willy, about his vision for Biff’s career:
“I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? I stopped in the middle of that office building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy?”
Now, because I’m in my twenties and still very much navigating the muck of personal evolution, I feel an attempt at a conclusion here would be insincere and inaccurate.
Instead, I’d rather leave you with a few relevant quotes:
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness’s of other people. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
“I don’t give a shit what the world thinks. I was born a bitch, I was born a painter, I was born fucked. But I was happy in my way. You did not understand what I am. I am love. I am pleasure, I am essence, I am an idiot, I am an alcoholic, I am tenacious. I am; simply I am…”
– Frida Kahlo
“Chip, in a late crisis of confidence, had tried to make [his apartment] presentable. He’d bought a stain-removal kit and lifted the big semen stain off the red chaise lounge, dismantled the wall of wine-bottle corks with which he’d been bricking in the niche above his fireplace at a rate of half a dozen Merlots and Pinot Grigios a week, taken down from his bathroom wall the close-up photographs of male and female genitalia that were the flower of his art collection, and replaced them with the three diplomas that [his mother] had long ago insisted on having framed for him. This morning, feeling as if he’d surrendered too much of himself, he’d readjusted his presentation by wearing leather to the airport.”
-Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
-Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
“Go into the world and fuck it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous that they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living. Make me nervous!”