Madison Leeson: Our obsession with failure

Madi Leeson portrait

Madison Leeson, who is about to graduate from OCAD U’s Criticism & Curatorial Practice program, says we have a problem — a problem exacerbated by how we connect notions of success or failure to economic wins or losses. We’re too obsessed with success, or more accurately, we avoid failure. And, Leeson says, the implications are legion.

Leeson’s thesis paper, “Perceiving Failure: The Absurdity of a Cultural Obsession,” has been selected for presentation at the upcoming Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design (AICAD) Student Success Conference in Brooklyn, New York, hosted by Pratt Institute.


The widespread implications of a culture obsessed with success are incalculable. This culture, with its deep aversion to failure self-perpetuates, influenced by our unique model of Capitalism. As we shall see, the precarity of this obsession is heightened by institutionalized inequity and cognitive biases. As well, in a society that esteems economic success with such fervor, it follows that there will exist perceptions of success and failure independent of the actual event. These perceptions are presented in this paper in two parts: the Interpersonal, which explores the factors behind success and failure as observed by another, and the Intrapersonal, which establishes perceptions of one’s own success and failure. These perceptions can also be affected by preconceived biases, either towards failure (through negative cognitive biases, insecurity, and discriminatory practices) or success (through positive cognitive biases and narcissism).

Malcolm Gladwell’s article for The New Yorker, “The Art of Failure”, looks at the ways in which “implicit” and “explicit” learning affect one’s performance in situations of stress. He categorizes three common causes of failure: i) panicking, where the implicit system takes over and leaves you with only instincts, ii) choking, where the explicit system takes over and removes all your instincts, and iii) stereotype threat, when one falters under the pressure of defying a stereotype (e.g. that women test worse than their male peers on standardized tests). He writes “Isn’t pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. We care more about how well we perform”, which serves to stress the significance of interpersonal perceptions of success, because one’s perceptions of oneself aren’t – in practice, at least – the most accurate arbiters of success. The arbiters of today are, for the most part, very similar to those that existed two centuries ago; institutions, primarily museums, universities, and the media, hold severe influence over our perceptions of others’ successes and failures, rightly or wrongly.

Western society’s obsession with success – or, more accurately, the avoidance of failure – seems to conflict with the ever-changing art world that promotes innovation, risk, and “new-ness”, but their affinity to Capitalism and its precarious notions of success and failure connect them. Ultimately we must ask ourselves the “big picture” questions: how does this model perpetuate near-constant failure in the pursuit of economic success, and, what are its greater implications?

Read Leeson’s complete thesis paper. 

When she’s not ruminating on cultural critique, Leeson is preparing to head to Eleusis, Greece this fall to pursue a Master’s degree in Heritage Management, via a joint program between the University of Kent and the Athens University of Economics and Business. She has worked extensively across OCAD University departments and initiatives: as a past Peer Mentor, Peer Note Taker, a Library Technician, as Lead of the Acculturation Portfolio on the Syrian Refugee Sponsorship partnership with Ryerson University, Assistant to the Student Advising Centre, and as a Multimedia Designer on various special projects. Oh, and she’s also worked as a Gallery Assistant at the Native Art Gallery in Oakville, and as Director of Youth Programming at the Oakville Arts Council. But the real question: does she sleep?

Leeson’s long term goal is to work as an anthropologist with UN peacekeeping forces, working to resolve the cultural conflicts that threaten much of the world’s oldest and most valuable cultural artifacts and institutions.

In a few weeks we’ll follow up with Leeson to learn about her AICAD conference experience.

— Sarah Mulholland, Manager, Student Communications, OCAD University