Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the rise of the loser in the public speaking world. According to the paper, men and women who have failed in business, sports, or life are now earning as much as $10,000 a pop by giving motivational speeches talking about their lack of success.
Why are failures so much in demand in the world of motivational speaking? According to one expert quoted by the Journal, the recent dot-com meltdown has wiped out so many fortunes and derailed so many careers that victims are seeking inspiration from individuals who have survived similar disasters. Seemingly, by listening to an itinerant, well-heeled failure talk about his screw-ups, people feel less devastated by their own mistakes. It’s not exactly schadenfreude. But it’s in the ballpark.
Obviously, this approach has dramatically altered the format of the average speaker’s presentation. Where speakers have traditionally used their time on the rostrum to boast about brilliant discoveries, preternaturally accurate prophesies, or ingenious strategies, they now talk about missed opportunities, lack of foresight, errors in judgment, overconfidence, immaturity, remorse, and despair.
I have known a lot of failures in my life-indeed, some of my best friends are failures-but the rise of failure chic in the public speaking business cannot be a good thing. For starters, there are already too many failures in this society, and far too many bad public speakers, meaning we all run the imminent risk of being inundated with torrents of generic anecdotes about meltdowns, bankruptcies, Chapter XI proceedings. But more troubling is the possibility that this low-profile, grass-r00ts movement could blossom into something much more vast.
For example, what if former players from the Buffalo Bills decide to go out on the stump and talk about what they learned while they were losing four consecutive Super Bowls? It’s bad enough having to gnaw on the inedible beef au jus and starchy carrot sticks while listening to blowhards like Bill Parcells, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson gloat about their successes. But at least these guys have actually won championships. Imagine listening to a bunch of guys most famous for not winning anything, anywhere-ever.
In the corporate world, the ranks of failures are even more bloated. Are the geniuses who brought us Irridium now going to join the rubber-chicken circuit? Are the podiums in ballrooms everywhere going to start filling up with the guys and gals who brought us pets.com, the Newton, New Coke? Is John DeLorean giving the keynote speech tonight?
Perhaps the worst fallout from the loser-as-sage movement is the inane b00ks that would inevitably begin to glut the marketplace. For years,
nitwits have been churning out flap-doodle like Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun and connect-the-dots management guides purporting to apply the wisdom of Machiavelli to the modern boardroom. If this fascination continues, we’ll be seeing books like Leadership Secrets of George Armstrong Custer, The Wit and Wisdom of Wrong-Way Corrigan, and How to Land Your Dream Job, by Al Gore.
Obviously, we can all learn something from people who have tried and failed. Don’t imitate them. Don’t invent products that nobody wants to buy. Don’t over-leverage your company. Don’t make too many enemies, and if you do, don’t make the wrong ones. Most important, don’t delude yourself into thinking that it’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. If the thing you tried was a dumb idea in the first place, all you’ve done by trying is waste your own and everybody else’s time.
What worries me most about the rise of loser public speakers is the message it sends to kids. Young people shouldn’t grow up with the idea that if they screw up they can always go out on the stump and recoup their losses by telling heart-warming stories about their mistakes. We don’t seek advice on government from deposed dictators, we don’t seek advice on start-up magazines from the folks who brought you Wigwag or Seven Days, and we certainly don’t seek advice on flying an airplane from a pilot who totaled the 747. Americans are a forgiving people, a compassionate people, a people who are always ready to give a guy a second chance. Which is why I have no objection to listening to what these screw-ups have to say.
But I sure as hell don’t think they should get paid for it.
Joe Queenan is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.