“Fail better” is now experimental literature’s equivalent of that famous Che Guevara photo, flayed completely of meaning and turned into a successful brand with no particular owner. Worstward Ho may be a difficult work that resists any stable interpretation, but we can at least be pretty sure that Beckett’s message was a bit darker than ‘Just do your best and everything is sure work out all right in the end.’ And yet it’s only because Beckett’s name is attached to the quotation, and because a lot of people think of him as a sage without quite knowing what he stood for, that it has spread so widely. It wouldn’t have survived as an authorless proverb.
How disturbing you find this probably depends on the degree of your Beckett worship. Maybe he would have hated it if he were still alive. Or maybe he would have thought it was funny. I certainly do. Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives is like watching a neighbour clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone. When Beckett talks about failure, he’s often talking about how language can’t withstand the weight of the meaning you want to put into it, and in that sense his unintended ubiquity is ideal: what better argument for the feebleness of determinate meaning than the tawdry afterlife of “fail better”?