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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 15th February 2008

Failing Upwards


In 2001 I published a book called How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. It was about my failure to "take" Manhattan in the second half of the 90s, but book shops insisted on placing it in the 'Self Help' section. They had taken the title at face value and persuaded themselves that it would be a useful primer for people who really did want to lose friends and alienate people.

Ironically, the book was translated into 12 languages and became an international bestseller and, as a result, I've turned into an expert on how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In a sense, I did write a "how to" book, even though I thought of it as a "how not to" book at the time. I now give after-dinner speeches on the subject of "failing upwards".

So what's the secret? One lesson I was taught at the beginning of my journalistic career was how to cope with being fired. This was just after I'd been "let go" from my first newspaper job. A Fleet Street veteran asked me what had happened and I told him that it hadn't been a good fit and we'd decided to go our separate ways.

"A word of advice," he said. "If you've just been fired from somewhere don't say you were the victim of cutbacks or you decided to spend more time with your family or any of that rubbish. Just say, 'I was fired' and leave it at that. Never complain, never explain."

That turned out to be very useful advice because in the 21 years since I've been fired from the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Mail on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Independent, the New Statesman and Vanity Fair. Indeed, on one occasion I was hired as a columnist for a national broadsheet and then sacked before I'd submitted my first column. That was a low point. I usually don't get fired until after I've written my first article.

One solution to being unable to hold down a job in journalism is to start your own magazine and appoint yourself the editor. I did this in 1991 when I joined forces with Julie Burchill and started the Modern Review. It all went swimmingly until she left her husband for one of the magazine's female contributors and announced she wanted to make her girlfriend the editor instead of me. Could I be sacked from my own magazine? I decided not to hang around to find out. I produced a 'Greatest Hits' issue and wrote an editorial in which I said I was closing it down because my co-proprietor had become a lesbian and wanted to turn the Modern Review into a cross between the New Statesman and Spare Rib.

Julie went nuts -- her girlfriend compared me to Hitler -- and it became the second biggest news story of the week. The papers documented the feud on their news pages, then followed up with hand-wringing pieces in their Comment sections lamenting the fact that a spat between two such non-entities had got so much coverage.

I called a famous PR man and asked him whether this was good publicity or bad.

"I'll tell you what I tell my clients," he said. "Don't read your press coverage -- weigh it."

Another useful lesson.

To a large extent, profiting from failure depends upon keeping your pecker up -- you have to see each setback as an opportunity rather than a defeat. A case in point is when the publisher of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People contacted Julie Burchill to see if she would provide me with a dust-jacket blurb.

"I'll rot in hell before I give that little bastard a quote for his book," she said.

We stuck it on the cover above the title.

Julie and I patched things up -- eventually -- and I'm glad we did. If your professional relationships have a tendency to blow up it's a good idea not to burn your bridges.

For example, in 2002 the movie producer Stephen Woolley optioned my book and hired me to adapt it for the screen. Three months later I turned in a first draft and he responded by summoning me to his office and firing me on the spot. I took it in my stride -- "I can't say I'm surprised, to be honest" -- and we remained on good terms. The upshot is that a film of How to Lose Friends starring Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst has just been made and will be coming out next year.

If there's one really important lesson I've learn in my 21-year career as a professional failure it is to never say die. This is the message of an anonymous quotation that used to hang above the desk of Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's: "Press on: Nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. Press on!"

Or, as Winston Churchill put it: "Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm."

Virgin iFly Magazine, Spring, 2008

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