Letting Go of the Need to Win

When we embrace the fact that failure is a natural part of being human, we may stumble onto a sense of simple joy that is the pinnacle of achievement.


The novelist Petina Gappah was born in the country of Rhodesia—a former British colony in central Africa that is about the size of Montana with a population greater than Pennsylvania—and experienced its birth as the independent nation of Zimbabwe. For Gappah, the experience combined both heroism and failure. Reaching independence was a heroic cause, but the young country has experienced great upheavals and in her view has fallen short of the lofty ideals that drove the independence movement. “Heroic failure” has become a watchword for her. She has told interviewers that the phrase expresses something quintessentially human: when we reach high, we often fall short. While many regard “heroic failure” as a bad thing and a derogatory term akin to “epic fail,” “loser,” and “hopeless case,” Gappah does not.

Her book Out of Darkness, Shining Light celebrates the life of the nineteenth century doctor, missionary, and explorer David Livingstone, who was searching for the source of the Nile River. In a time long before telephones and GPS, Livingstone’s expedition was famously four years or more past its best-by date and he was lost to the world until the New York Herald sent the young journalist Henry Morton Stanley to find…