Along time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the producers of Star Warsmade a big mistake. Or at least, so it seemed at the time. When the character of Jar Jar Binks made his debut in 1999 he was famously hated on sight, with fans raging against his squeakily irritating speech mannerisms and the way he’d “ruined” their precious saga. What wasn’t necessarily obvious at the time was the impact of this excruciatingly public failure on Ahmed Best, the young actor who supplied Jar Jar’s voice.
This week, Best disclosed that at one point he had considered suicide. He was only 25 when what was supposed to be his big Hollywood break turned sour and, as he put it in a previous interview, “Failing and being black is very scary, because we don’t get a lot of chances, you know? I didn’t get another chance after Jar Jar. No one said, ‘You know, that didn’t work. But I believe in you, and you’re a good actor.’”
Yet somehow, Best created his own second chance. Like the England manager, Gareth Southgate, who in lifting the nation’s penalty shootout curse this week also exorcised a ghost from his own past as a player, Best managed to take failure and use it as a foundation for success. He went back to film school, learned to direct, created and produced his own TV show, and won awards for voiceovers. This week he released a photograph of himself and his young son on the bridge from which all those years ago he eventually decided not to throw himself, signalling that hanging in there had been more than worth it.
The idea of “failing forwards”, or bouncing back from seemingly irreparable disaster to unexpected success, is an incredibly seductive one for obvious reasons. Everyone fails at least once in their lives, and who doesn’t want to hear that it’s not the end of the world? Hence the mushrooming self-help industry dedicated to the art of failing better, from books to TED talks to podcasts such as The Other F Word, featuring successful people discussing how past setbacks have shaped them. Even schools now organise sessions for perfectionist pupils on overcoming a fear of failure that might stop them taking necessary professional risks. But while learning not to be paralysed by past mistakes is a crucial life skill, so is the art of responding generously to someone else’s.
The image of Southgate consoling Mateus Uribe, the Colombian player who hit the crossbar, is fast becoming almost as iconic as the shot of Southgate celebrating England’s victory. He of all people knows what it’s like to have failure writ so humiliatingly large. These days there is the fear not just of the impact on a career but also what’s inevitably coming next: the hot lava of social media condemnation, the death threats, the bewildering intensity of the hatred and the way it sinks its hooks into anything that might make a player vulnerable.
And Southgate was doing his level best to demonstrate how such failures should be greeted: not with boiling spite, but common decency. He may not come across as your average bombastic manager, but there’s something about his kindly and rather self-effacing manner to which even people who couldn’t care less about football have instinctively responded after a summer of vicious political squabbling. Victory is sweet, but victory with grace even sweeter.
For not all failures have a happy ending. The ones we hear about most often – the rejection letters JK Rowling got before Harry Potter finally found his publisher; the friend who would never have met the love of their life if their first spouse hadn’t so brutally dumped them – are strictly speaking not true failures at all, but redemption stories. They’re about overcoming failure, not learning to live with it. World Cups, however, are ripe with opportunities for failure of a far more raw and cataclysmic kind: the missed save, the flawed shot, the one mistake a young player worries they’ll never be allowed to forget. Anyone can forgive this kind of public failure years later, when it’s been rendered into latter-day success. But the reaction at the time matters too.
We’re not talking here about wrongdoing or negligence, the failures that destroy lives. These are failures that hurt the individual who failed far more than they hurt anyone else, yet they’re increasingly blown up out of all proportion. If you didn’t like a Star Wars character – well, in the grand scheme of things, so what? Nobody’s life should hang in the balance as a result.
Nor does the fact that footballers are ludicrously overpaid entitle fans to goad another human being to the point of breakdown from the comfort of their armchairs. It’s a perfectly noble thing to master the art of resilience, and teach children not to fear failure. But teach them also to support others through it as Southgate did, and there might be rather less fear in the first place.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist