Issue 34: Failure & Success

The Great Surrender

On learning from the brute force of nature

One sunny, temperate late-April afternoon five years ago, I make the 26-mile drive from Livingston, Montana, the small town of 7,000 where I live, to the nearest city of Bozeman to get a bikini wax. When I leave the appointment an hour later, the air is heavy, the sky darkening to the color of dishwater, and all signs point to rain. But my then-boyfriend, now-husband, is returning from a trip that evening, so I ignore the weather, because I want to buy some candles before he arrives. By the time I emerge from the store, snow is beginning to fall. Now I know that when the sky starts glowering like this, it’s safest to prepare for the worst, but at the time I anticipate a light dusting. It’s spring, after all. Unconcerned, I get into my car.

My route home will take me over the Bozeman Pass, a winding mountain passage on Interstate 90 that joins the Gallatin and Bridger ranges, and sits at the approximate midpoint between Bozeman and Livingston. Driving over “the pass” in the winter is dangerous, and instills a twinge of fear in the hearts of all but the most foolhardy locals. Before I attempt it, I do my research. There’s an online webcam that offers real-time pictures of the highest point (elevation 5,702 feet), but to me they always look like the grainy, inscrutable black-and-white images produced by a security camera or a sonogram machine. Usually, someone who has had to drive over the pass—for work, or to fetch a visitor at the airport—posts their snapshot on the Livingston Facebook page, letting other people know of the conditions. News of snow and ice also travels quickly by word-of-mouth through the town’s lunch spots, coffee shops, and bars.

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Serge Attukwei Clottey

The Afrofuturist performance artist reclaiming Ghana’s trash into socio-political art

Artist Serge Attukwei Clottey gestures around the cramped back room of his workshop in Accra, Ghana. Intricate lattice sheaths litter the space: the ones rolled up on the floor are mostly yellow and red tangles of plastic; the stringy matrix hanging by the door is a black mesh of interwoven rubber. What others consider useless scraps, Attukwei sees as a bevy of supplies. “My materials are what society has left behind, what people see as discarded,” he says. “The process I put it through isn’t recycling. But I change the function. It becomes valuable.”

The journey from garbage to gallery piece is central to the overarching narrative of Attukwei’s art, in part because his own ancestral story is one rife with voyages. In the past, he says, the Clottey clan was known to travel to the northern part of Ghana and return to the coast with voodoo. When the chief of Labadi, now one of Accra’s renowned beach towns, needed to be spiritually fortified for an impending skirmish against a rival township, it was the Clotteys’ mysticism he called upon. In return, they were rewarded with land—from Attukwei’s studio located on Labadi Beach Road, minutes from the water’s edge, to the oceanfront. “That is how we migrated here,” he says.

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Drones on the Dance Floor

These Tokyo creatives are mixing man and machine in imaginative, improbable forms

In the quiet surroundings of Tokyo’s Ebisu district, a startling contrast to nearby Shibuya’s frenetic sensory overload, the studio Daito Manabe and Mikiko Mizuno share sits on the ground floor of a nondescript apartment block. Sandwiched between the elevated Yamanote train and the concrete-lined Shibuya River, you would be forgiven for missing it altogether. There is no sign or front door. When I arrive, a kindly neighbor points me to a discreet side entrance and into the creative laboratory the couple shares with Rhizomatiks, the renowned design firm Manabe helped create.

Once inside, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the cavernous space and colossal collection of electronic equipment, including shelves of carefully lined-up drones. It’s like a playground. Manabe is a skilled programmer, designer, DJ, VJ, and composer; Mizuno is a choreographer and founder of dance company Elevenplay. This is where their creative projects come to life, blending art and technology in immersive, improbable configurations.

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Funhouse Psychotherapy With Poker Chips

What gambling can teach you about yourself

The man beside me at the blackjack table, a tipsy, middle-aged salesman, was on a winning streak. Again and again, over half an hour of play, he’d drawn the cards he’d needed to beat the dealer, amassing stacks of $100 chips that came, by my count, to more than $6,000. Fortune was smiling on him, but not on me—I was down $200. It was hard not to feel like I was doing something wrong, even though I was playing by the book, employing what blackjack manuals call “perfect strategy.” As the salesman’s streak continued, my sense of self-pity deepened to the point that I began to place irrational bets, playing wild hunches that didn’t pan out and left me even further in the hole. Experience told me that it was time to stop, and so I did, fighting a voice that told me to play on, that my rotten luck was bound to change. An hour later, I passed by the table and saw the salesman sitting with his head down, his winnings gone. He’d listened to another voice, apparently: One that told him his marvelous luck would carry on.

Since taking up gambling in my early 30s, I’ve learned that the casino is a harsh classroom. In a thousand ways, it has taught me two main lessons: that the odds are the odds, and they will always ultimately prevail; and that the mind (and particularly the ego) is full of trickery. These tricks take myriad forms, but they share a common theme: The odds apply chiefly to others. You are special.

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Our City is Devastated. We Are Not.

The international press saw hopelessness, but these kids saw hope. See their city through their eyes in our Summer Issue cover story.

In April, Winston Struye was taking a taxi from eastern Nepal to Darjeeling, India, when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central Nepal. The 24-year-old photographer immediately thought of his students back in Kathmandu and feared the worst. Just four days earlier, he had been in the Nepali capital, finishing a photography project at the ROKPA Children’s Home, helping a group of former street children document their daily lives through photography and learn the power of storytelling. Returning to Kathmandu two days after the quake, Struye found the city piecing itself back together. Corner stores were reopening, teahouses were filled with patrons, and though they were justifiably shaken, his former students were playing poker the way they had before the quake. This sense of resilience clashed with stories in the international media, which focused on wanton destruction, rising death tolls, and impending outbreaks of disease of Haiti-like proportions. Struye knew there was a side of the story not being told, so he gathered his students, showed them how Kathmandu was being depicted, and gave them an assignment: Show the world the side of their home not being shared. The destruction in Nepal’s capital was tremendous, but as the photos taken by Struye’s students communicate, so too is the spirit of its residents.

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Failure & Success

Digging at the roots of the cultural fascination with failure.

While we were working on this issue, there was an incredible scene on Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley that spoofed the current day cult of failure. In describing the ongoing tribulations of his technology company, CEO Gavin Belson proclaimed: “What those in dying business sectors call failure, we in tech know to be pre-greatness.” He uttered these words in front of a screen that spelled out his point in no uncertain terms: “Failure equals success.” Those listening nodded intently as if Belson were a Zen master.

The idea of failure has been in flux throughout human history. Whether linked to sin (Judeo-Christianity), ignorance (the Enlightenment), or abnormality (modernity), societies have continually propped up distinct notions of failure to bolster corresponding notions of success. But something strange has happened in recent years: Instead of propping up success, failure now seems to be competing with it. Throughout our culture, we find failure being celebrated as if it were a virtue. According to Oprah, it is a “stepping stone to greatness.” J.K. Rowling claims that it comes with “fringe benefits.” And all over the business world, it is positioned as the unmistakable key to unlocking human excellence. “It’s fine to celebrate success,” remarked Bill Gates. “But it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

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