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Coffee with Neil Young

If You Want to Believe in Yourself, First You Need to Fail (A Conversation With Neil Young)


During a conference at the Slamdance Film Festival, Neil Young defended the idea of failure as a catalyzer for self-belief.

During recent decades the idea of “success” has become one of the most solid pillars of the dominant social narrative. Nearly always from en economic point of view, “being successful in life” is a desired goal but which is clearly defined within the coordinates of property and wealth.

In that context, “failure” therefore appears as an abhorrent option, a reality that is to be avoided at all costs and with all the possible resources. And if it should arise, it should then be denied and hidden, acting as if it never occurred.

However, both circumstances form part of life and, as a result, can occur at any time. At least once in our existence, we will also be successful in something and, at the same time, we will inevitably fail in something at least once. But the notion must be understood, in either case, according to our own individual context, and not within a narrative imposed from outside.

In 2012, as part of the Slamdance Film Festival, the singer-songwriter Neil Young hosted a talk with director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs 1991; Philadelphia, 1993), a kind of ‘lecture’ in which Young spoke of the importance of failing in life.

The other thing you have to be willing to do and you have to really be able to embrace it and accept it and really welcome it into your life with open arms, a wide, wide vision, is failure. Be sure to welcome failure. Always say, ‘you’re okay with me, failure, come on,’ because then you have no fear, and if you have no fear and you believe in yourself and you only listen to yourself, you are number one, everything else is behind you, your name is on it. It’s your life, your film, everybody else be damned.

What is the difference between that notion of failure that Young defends and that of the hegemonic narrative? Why does the singer invite us to embrace the failures that others urge us to avoid?

It could be qualified as an existentialist position: the failures that Young talks about are those that are linked to our vital experiences, those pedagogical failures that teach us something about ourselves and our circumstances, and which in some way transform us because they make us see something about us that we had not acknowledged. And which has to do with the relationship between failure and fear, because failing also means realizing that we can move forward again.

In the face of the imperative of success and possession, living while knowing that it is possible and even necessary to experience failure signifies a dialectic of continuous acknowledgment that makes our existence more authentic, more our own.

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