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The Poor Poet (1839) is a painting by Carl Spitzweg
The Poor Poet (1839) is a painting by Carl Spitzweg
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons

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Failure is the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success. The criteria for failure depends on context, and may be relative to a particular observer or belief system. One person might consider a failure what another person considers a success, particularly in cases of direct competition or a zero-sum game. Similarly, the degree of success or failure in a situation may be differently viewed by distinct observers or participants, such that a situation that one considers to be a failure, another might consider to be a success, a qualified success or a neutral situation.

It may also be difficult or impossible to ascertain whether a situation meets criteria for failure or success due to ambiguous or ill-defined definition of those criteria. Finding useful and effective criteria, or heuristics, to judge the success or failure of a situation may itself be a significant task.


In American history

Cultural historian Scott Sandage argues that the concept of failure underwent a metamorphosis in the United States over the course of the 19th century. Initially, Sandage notes, financial failure, or bankruptcy, was understood as an event in a person's life: an occurrence, not a character trait. The notion of a person being a failure, Sandage argues, is a relative historical novelty: "[n]ot until the eve of the Civil War did Americans commonly label an insolvent man 'a failure'". Accordingly, the notion of failure acquired both moralistic and individualistic connotations. By the late 19th century, to be a failure was to have a deficient character.

This 'American sense' looked upon failure as 'a moral sieve' that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances …

In business

Product failure ranges from failure to sell the product to fracture of the product, in the worst cases leading to personal injury, the province of forensic engineering.

A commercial failure is a product or company that does not reach expectations of success.

Most of the items listed below had high expectations, significant financial investments, and/or widespread publicity, but fell far short of success. Due to the subjective nature of "success" and "meeting expectations," there can be disagreement about what constitutes a "major flop."

Sometimes, commercial failures can receive a cult following, with the initial lack of commercial success even lending a cachet of subcultural coolness.

In philosophy

Philosophers in the analytic tradition have suggested that failure is connected to the notion of an omission. In ethics, omissions are distinguished from acts: acts involve an agent doing something; omissions involve an agent's not doing something.

Both actions and omissions may be morally significant. The classic example of a morally significant omission is one's failure to rescue someone in dire need of assistance. It may seem that one is morally blameworthy for failing to rescue in such a case.

Smith notes that there are two ways one can not do something: consciously or unconsciously. A conscious omission is intentional, whereas an unconscious omission may be negligent, but is not intentional. Accordingly, Smith suggests, we ought to understand failure as involving a situation in which it is reasonable to expect a person to do something, but they do not do it—regardless of whether they intend to do it or not.

Clarke, commenting on Smith's work, suggests that "[w]hat makes [a] failure to act an omission is the applicable norm". In other words, a failure to act becomes morally significant when a norm demands that some action be taken, and it is not taken.

In science

Scientific hypotheses can be said to fail when they lead to predictions that do not match the results found in experiments. Alternatively, experiments can be regarded as failures when they do not provide helpful information about nature. However, the standards of what constitutes failure are not clear-cut. For example, the Michelson–Morley experiment became the "most famous failed experiment in history" because it did not detect the motion of the Earth through the luminiferous aether as had been expected. This failure to confirm the presence of the aether would later provide support for Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity.

Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly explains that a great deal can be learned from things going wrong unexpectedly, and that part of science's success comes from keeping blunders "small, manageable, constant, and trackable". He uses the example of engineers and programmers who push systems to their limits, breaking them to learn about them. Kelly also warns against creating a culture (e.g., school system) that punishes failure harshly, because this inhibits a creative process, and risks teaching people not to communicate important failures with others (e.g., null results).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Failure" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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