A Beautifully Refreshing Perspective On Failure

Rohan Grover

This is the most compelling TED talk I’ve ever seen. In it, Alok (who uses “they/them/their” pronouns) talks about the moral hypocrisy of success, the competitive professionalization of social change, and a refreshing perspective on failure. My words can’t do it justice, but it’s some powerful real talk. Warning: You’re going to want to watch this more than once. Now excuse me while I go rethink my life choices.

(applause)

Alok Vaid-Menon: I'd like to begin with a poem.

Remember the first day of freshman year when you were nothing but a name and a dot on the map at the front of the hall?

Remember when our parents dropped us off on in those rooms too small for all of our expectations, let alone our naivete?

Remember when you told me that you weren't sure, but you were pretty sure, that you were going to declare a double major in philosophy and English because you cried the first time you read "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," and we both shared a secret, an unquenchable lust for bad science fiction?

Remember when we both thought we were going to "find ourselves," "change the world," and all of the other slogans we memorized from the viewbooks, the ones that we stitched to our throats when they asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up?

So when you changed your major to econ, so when you pledged that fraternity, so when you exchanged T-shirt for J.Crew, so when you accepted that job offer at an investment bank because you swore you were just going to dismantle the system from within because you were just different from the rest of them, I wondered at what point we become the tucked-in shirt, the 9 - 5 we grew up fearing.

You, whose love of learning far surpassed the stickers your teachers adorned your homework with. You, who could not fall asleep that night in debate camp when you read Marx for the first time because the world just finally made sense again. You, whose creativity refused to be disciplined, what happened to you?

You, who sacrificed dream for diploma, revolution for resume, in that factory which tries to produce profit out of every potential prophet. Where change falls from hearts into pockets, and won't really teach you how to stop it, because we've got to make that endowment rocket.

"Small liberal arts college degree" becomes a fancy way of saying "can spend eight hours designing PowerPoint slides," or "will sacrifice all promises for promotion," or "can seduce potential business clients by quoting classic literature I read in college."

So, what if the best way to dominate a world is to pretend that you are saving it? So, what if this education was really about teaching us how to become so ignorant that we forgot how to think for ourselves?

You, the 20-something-year-old idealist gone corporate, in your first suit, throwing theory at a wall that will swallow you up and spit you back out on the street, discharged like the cold hard cash of an A.T.M. machine, your heartbeat reduced to a series of transactions. I almost thought that when you hugged me good-bye you would ask me for a receipt, proof of purchase for a friendship you only consumed when it made sense for your career trajectory. I'm sorry I did not make the cut for the walking resume you mistake as body.

But I still want to believe in you, because I want to believe in the power of a creativity undisciplined: the time we saw her smile, saw our first eclipse, read our first book, the joy and chaos of it all.

So, what if it is just chaos? The time and space before friendship got postponed by deadlines, before future was segregated into interviews and internships. So, what if you are really nothing, like the dot on the map from freshman year? And what if that is beautiful? What if we both cried when our parents left us, but we did not tell each other?

What if I am crying that you are leaving me, but I will not tell you because I no longer have the market value to make you listen, that I think you are worth more than any salary increase that they will give you, that I do not think that your heart can be transcribed on a spreadsheet of numbers, that I am broke but not broken, wondering what you could have been before you sold out?

(applause)

Alok Vaid-Menon: Thank you. Thank you. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm here to recruit you. This is not a recruitment interview like the ones your career centers have prepared you for. I do not care where you went to school, nor what you majored in. These things are no longer relevant in a world where we are losing some of our most creative and dynamic minds to the epidemic of success.

This is not the crisis that they will tell you about on the news: that the economy is tanking, the world is at war. This is something far different. Too many things are working too well. The government isn't broken; it's working. Our universities are not broken; they are perfect. Our generation is not apathetic; it is flourishing.

This means that you are not actually an innovator, a leader, an exceptional student, or all of the other medals they have placed around your neck. These are merely accomplishments you've been taught your entire life that define your self worth. Should you desire to be successful, you will not actually bring human rights for all, eliminate poverty and global warming, and fix Congress. Should you go in with these mindsets, chances are you will fail in the same ways all the generations before you have failed.

The truth is, the key to changing the world is finding a way to fail to live up to its expectations.

Hi. My name is Alok Vaid-Menon, and you can call me a fashionista, activist, general provocateur, but I prefer to call myself a professional failure, someone who at least my mom reminds me was destined for all the riches of the world, but somehow messed up on the way.

You see, I grew up in a comfortable middle class Indian family where the expectation was that I'd grow up and become some fancy schmancy academic. With two Ph.D. parents, the bar was always set high. I remember getting chastised for talking on the phone rather than reading The New York Times. I assumed the secret to legitimacy was finding a scholar who had written about something. This is how I discovered Critical YouTube Studies. It's real.

(laughter)

Alok Vaid-Menon: It wasn't so much that my parents pressured me to succeed; it was more of a quiet expectation. You see, this was part of our immigration story: to move to this country and not really challenge any of its rules, but rather, beat everyone else at their own game. Which goes to say that from an early age, it seemed like success was the only way to justify my parents' journey across the ocean. But when I got into Stanford, my parents weren't really that excited for me. It was something more, well, expected.

It was only when I got to university that I began to recognize how violent success can actually be. I remember the day vividly. It was our opening convocation, and the keynote speaker said that we were all the future leaders of the world – before we had actually done anything. And I remember thinking the way that we were discussing success was actually less about what our impact was and more about our shared prestige.

In the beginning, all of my classmates had some brilliant ideas of what it was going to take to fix the world's problems, but over time their methods became, shall we say, less specific. We were expected to congratulate the "public servant" who accepted a job offer at a corporation that left hundreds of thousands of people starving. We were expected to applaud for a keynote speaker and not mention his support of racist policies. Lo and behold, my classmates continued to flock to all these talks by success stories, not necessarily because of what they had done, but rather because of this elusive concept of "who they were."

Success has never actually been about fixing problems; it's been about perpetuating them. Ask yourself this: What happened to the thousands of people who were denied admission to your university? What about the hundreds of people who did not get the job that you were offered? How many people did it take to suffer in order for you to thrive? Do you even care? Success is about self-promotion, not putting change into motion.

We are part of a generation whose ancestors expect us to fix all of the problems we inherited, but ironically, we are destined to fail in the same ways as them because we're using the same tactics. Success just isn't going to cut it anymore.

Ask yourself this: If all of the best universities really produced the most successful leaders, then why do we still live in a world of corruption? If all of the success stories were really successful, then why do we still live in a violently unequal world? I think it's time we broke up with success, or at least how we've currently defined it.

OK. I get it. This is, like, super awkward. Success feels good, and I'm asking you to feel bad about it. It's like, what would it have felt like in second grade after you wrote your first love poem, and your teacher gave it back and said, "You failed"? It would be pretty awkward. I understand. I didn't always think this way. It took me failing and recognizing how beautiful that was to really understand.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to organize with the transgender movement in South Africa. I was there to research the disconnect between progressive legislation and the experiences of violence on the ground. Naturally, being the type A model minority I was, I obtained the best research grants, got critical and cutting-edge interviews, and generally felt like I had come up with a theory to fix the violence.

I returned to the U.S. to continue to write my thesis, but in the process I got an email from one of my colleagues that one of my research participants had died. Her name was Kim. I had just read her interview the day before.

What is the point of a thesis written in a language inaccessible by the very people it's about? What is the point of a thesis and a researcher who is familiar with the names of theories, but not actually the names of her own neighbors? Who is invited to speak about a movement, and who must die for it?

I was so concerned with being a successful researcher that I glossed over the parts of the work that were the most important: the hard and invisible parts of building trust, empathy, and solidarity. I shared an office with Kim for two months, and I cannot tell you what her favorite color was, where she lived, and what made her weep for joy. The only parts of her that were important were the parts of her that fit into my own analysis.

Success is a violent and manipulative process. The thesis committee didn't care about my ability to create research that was actually relevant to local organizers, let alone my ability to end violence in South Africa. If anything, my research would have perpetuated violence so that future generations of researchers could come and study it for their own job promotion. Let's call that a success story.

So I deleted Kim's interview, I changed my topic, and I started thinking. Even though I had failed at becoming an academic, I had succeeded at becoming a better human being. Failure, in its own way, is a different form of success, which means that every single problem in the world can actually be reconsidered as a successful implementation of an idea: The persistence of racially segregated schools reveals the success of institutionalized racism. The crisis of student debt indicates the success of a foolish logic that we should have to pay for our educations rather than be entitled to them. The persistence of violence against queer people is indicative of the clout of a currency of intolerance. These issues are not problems; they are success stories. They are victories.

This means that the system is not broken. It is working. It is working so well that it has taught us our entire lives that it is broken so that we spend most of our energy trying to improve it rather than actually building alternatives.

Success is actually about maintaining the status quo. Few of us have thought about who determines the markers of success, let alone challenge them. Because we've allowed the crisis of success to go unregulated, we find ourselves in a peculiarly awkward position: celebrating every new success story while by and large the world continues to get more unequal, more unhealthy, and more unbearable for the majority of people.

Those of us interested in intervening in these problems can no longer revert to success. We need a new way to understand and relate to our work, a way that is less selfish and superficial. And to most people, this method might be thought of as failing, and to some degree, I think that they're right. We are failing to accept a world of injustice. We are failing to buy into the myth of progress. We are failing to leave one another behind.

So I encourage you to fail more. Think about how they've stolen your passion from you and grafted it into a queer trajectory oriented towards success and not necessarily substance. Think about what that success will actually realize for people beyond yourself.

And what I hope you will find is that by failing, a whole new world of possibilities will open up for you: like the time I failed and remembered how to love strangers that, in our own drive to succeed, we neglect the millions of potentials for change around us.

This is often the most transformative and exciting work: work like building relationships with neighbors, cooking, making art and movements, and all of the other millions of skills that will never have a place on your resume. This is what I'm asking you to do: Think about the parts of your day that you do not tell people, the gray areas that do not make it into your interviews or resumes. This is the most important part of your identity. Major in that feeling.

Recently, I have been trying to reconsider all of the parts of my life I used to think were insignificant, and find beauty in them. These days, the most important work I do as an activist is actually not that glamorous. It's about entering data in spreadsheets, organizing food for meetings, listening to people's stories, and calling my mom every single night. And these things are not going to change policy, give me a diploma or an award, but I think that they are doing the slow work of tearing at the fabric of our culture.

And this is what I think it's going to take to change the world. It's not going to happen if we keep on trying to be successful and fighting our way to the top. It's going to happen when instead we reach our arms out to one another, clinging on desperately and ferociously, trying to remember a type of interconnectivity that our schools, our careers, and our own anxieties are trying their best to eradicate, remembering that we are actually nothing, and how beautiful that is, because that means they do not know what to expect from us next.

I would like to close with a poem to honor Kim and all of the other casualties of our success stories.

"My Summer in Cape Town," or "I Am Sorry for Using You."

They will ask you whether your research project can inflict significant harm, and you will respond "minor discomfort" to expedite the review process.

Her name is Kim, and on Mondays she asks you what you did over the weekend. You do not tell her. You are guilty of the conversion rate, how you can afford a club, a skin, a language that she never will.

She wants to know what it's like to live in America, if you have a boyfriend there who will buy you dinner sometimes.

In your field preparation class, they will teach you the importance of obtaining consent. Kim cannot sign your forms, so instead she communicates with the earnestness of hazel eyes. Smiles, tells you how she's let men and heroin inside of her and sometimes couldn't tell the difference. Laughs, tells you how they used to beat her in men's prisons.

In your international field preparation class, they will teach you not to get involved in your subjects' personal lives. Your palms are sweaty. Do not let them smear the ink as she keeps smiling and encourages you to ask more questions.

An aneurism is a blood-filled bulge in the wall of a blood vessel. When the amount of pressure increases, there's a significant risk in rupture, often resulting in death.

A researcher is an ambitious distraction at the back of the room. When the amount of information increases, there's a significant risk in epiphany, often resulting in a published paper.

She will die nine months after your interview, and you can still remember the scent of her smile.

One. Dear Kim: In America, I am learning how to think that I am better than you. In fact, I am majoring in you. Don't worry; they don't use your name, keep it confidential.

Two. I am making a new theory out of your body. Academics work like Johns sometimes. Don't worry; they will pay me to use you. I promise I will cut you some of the profit in my acknowledgments.

Three. My thesis will be in English, in that language you learned watching reruns of "Friends." Kim, I wish we could have been friends. Just got to keep it professional. I promise I will publish my thesis on the widest paper I can find so that they will see the black in your words.

Four. I will bury you in a library. I hope you will find peace there, in that haunted house of quotations that hang on the shelves like skeletons.

Listen to the recorded transcript on repeat. And cry because we're too afraid to let people inside of us in fear of imploding. And cry because you have the story of a dead woman nested at the back of your throat, and you do not deserve it.

Dear Kim: What I really meant to ask you was: "What theory did you use to stay warm at night?" is "Can you teach me?"

(applause)

There may be small errors in this transcript.
About:

This speech was delivered at TEDxMiddlebury, an independently organized TED event. Alok is one-half of a kick-ass spoken word duo called DarkMatter. Show them some love on Facebook and Twitter.

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