Success and Failure Today: Death of a Salesman Revisited

In an article in Newsweek (September 12) Julia Baird asks whether, in view of the economic situation in the United States today, our view of failure should be softened. “In a country with a level of unemployment so high that it is likely to determine the outcome of the midterm elections, failure is something many of us are wrestling with right now…. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy Loman kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house – he had just made the last mortgage payment – and had a wife and two children. Today he’d be a survivor.”

Today, a millionaire may consider himself a failure for any number of reasons. But using the usual economic and social – not psychological – criteria, the relative number of failures in the U.S. today is substantially larger than it was during the postwar prosperity of 1949 when the tragedy depicted in Death of the Salesman made such a huge impression. One might almost say that today, using these criteria, failing is the norm.

But there are also many amazing success stories. One type of a successful career in today’s world is that of the technological “nerd” who by reason of exceptional brain power reaches the top without having any charisma, or any noticeable “people skills.” An example is Mark Zuckerman, the young tsar of Facebook.

In the world of politics the question to ask is whether reasonable expectations – one’s own and other people’s – are being met. If not, that is a definition of failure. In the case of Obama, at this time most Americans believe he is a failure. It is impossible to know what, deep down, he himself feels.

In Canadian politics the big question is whether Michael Ignatieff will meet his own and his party’s expectations.

The reasons for the current problems of both politicians are quite similar – that their character and background make it hard for them to connect with sufficient numbers of voters.

In politics, surprises are the norm.

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5 responses to “Success and Failure Today: Death of a Salesman Revisited

  1. David Schatzky

    Jimmy Carter, who has just released his White House diaries, is often considered a “failed” President. But he achieved 60% of his campaign promises, which, apparently, is a better record than any recent President other than Lyndon Johnson. And he did this in an environment very similar to that which Obama is contending with now. When assessing politicians it’s hard to know, until later, whether their success cup was half empty or half full.

  2. I disagree about the similarity of Obama’s and Ignatieff’s problems.

    Whatever his background, Obama connected with enough voters to get elected president, only to be faced with an epoch-making docket of calamities. I wonder how any other human being would be doing in the polls right now having been given the same presidential start.

    Ignatieff has yet to get to first base on that kind of playing field.

    All that Obama and Ignatieff have in common is Harvard (in very different roles).

    • I reluctantly concede your point, and David’s. Obviously, not so very long ago, Obama DID connect, spectacularly, and he may again, while so far Ignatieff has not yet been put to the test. The current (apparent) popularity of Ford in Canada’s largest city does not augur well for him.

      However, I am not afraid to go on record for predicting that Ignatieff will surprise us all.

  3. David Schatzky

    Alan’s right. Ignatieff, at this point, is merely a “want-to-be”. If he ever becomes Prime Minister, when his term is over we’ll be able to assess how successful he was.
    And there’s another point: being popular is not a measure of success.
    Right now, Obama is not popular.
    But, by the time he’s out of the White House, he may have chalked up significant achievements.
    By then, he may have earned his Nobel Peace Prize.
    Domestically he’s already won some hard fought legislative victories.
    The jury is out as to whether he’s done enough, or the right things, yet.
    I’d rather use “track record” than “popularity” as the measure of success.
    And that measure has to be applied retrospectively.