Books about failure put both their authors and their readers in awkward positions. Writers are at pains to abase themselves somewhat, to show that they know the terrain by sacrificing some dignity without losing all credibility. Many readers, meanwhile, may be willing to ponder how they fail or why they fear it, but few will pick up a book for people who think of themselves as “failures.” Add to this the fact that all books fail to be everything their authors hoped and that almost all books fail to sell, and it becomes clear why books about failure remain few and far between.
Two at once is even more unusual, especially two that fail (which I mean in the nicest possible way) in different ways and take such different approaches to essentially the same question: How do we learn to stop worrying and love it when we bomb? Both authors appear to have worried about failure more than they have experienced it. Sarah Lewis, an art historian and curator who was named to O, the Oprah Magazine’s 2010 “O Power List,” celebrated her past and future failures in her college application essay (she went to Harvard) and alludes to life lessons from a janitor grandfather. Lewis invites us to think deeply about failure as a “gift” that is essential to creativity. Megan McArdle earned her M.B.A. but graduated after the dot-com bust, moving back into her parents’ New York City co-op and working part-time in her father’s firm. Eventually, she blogged her way into a journalism career at The Economist and an array of impressive print and online outlets. In “The Up Side of Down” McArdle wants to teach us how to “fail well” by changing how we react to inevitable setbacks. Chatty and digressive (six pages on her breakup in a chapter about the General Motors bailout), McArdle’s book remixes some of her magazine writing into small, easy doses.What could be more damning than the simple truth?
McArdle has written a more straightforward if not traditional self-help book. “Since we cannot succeed simply by not failing,” she writes in “The Up Side of Down,” “we should stop spending so much energy trying to avoid failure or engineer it away. Instead, we should embrace it — smartly.” In lieu of seven effective habits, she recommends failing “early and often,” teaching failure in schools, making it easy to recover, shedding biases that keep us from perceiving our mistakes, distinguishing between novice errors and criminal ones, resisting the instinct to blame, and erring on the side of forgiveness.In McArdle's blog posts we have seen her recommend these principles in the abstract but only call them to action whenever the financial industry is faced with regulation. She declared Obamacare doomed from the get-go.
Rooting her advice in American exceptionalism, she remarks: “Failing well can’t be that hard, because America spent several centuries being really good at it. We’re the descendants of failures who fled to these shores from their creditors, their failed farms, their disastrous love affairs. If things didn’t work out in New York, we picked up and moved to North Dakota. Somewhere along the way, we built the biggest, richest country in the world. And, I’m going to argue, we did it mostly because we were willing to risk more, and forgive more easily, than most other countries.” Later on, she reiterates “why most of us are here: because some restless ancestor got to wondering if the pastures might not be greener on the other side of the Atlantic.”
One need not have descended from involuntary immigrants, Native Americans, the landless, the unloved, the unforgiven or the Pacific Rim to recognize that if Lewis occasionally overthinks, McArdle’s weakness is blunt generalization. In an autopsy of Enron, she pauses to ask, “Why is it easy to get rich in America, and hard to get rich in Zimbabwe?” The answer (reached via detour from Enron, through the lost “communist Eden” of hunter-gatherer societies, to “the American Bourgeois Synthesis”) is “the culture and rules surrounding risk and failure.” McArdle interviews social scientists and experimental economists, invoking concepts like normalcy bias and inattentional blindness à la David Brooks. She augments the more familiar hedgehogs, foxes, blamestorming and tipping points by coining her own phrases: “Modern life has a lot of what you might call a ‘spell-check factor,’ ” for example, and “what I’ve taken to calling ‘groupidity’: doing something stupid because other people around you seem to think it’s safe.” In her best chapter, on the crushing emotional and structural costs of long-term unemployment, she offers, “The best way to survive unemployment is to adopt what you might call the Way of the Shark: Keep moving, or die.”Catch phrases, social studies from someone who dismisses social studies, pop culture economics, self-help philosophy; truly a rehash of her blog posts. Sandage points out the central weakness of McArdle's mind and work; not everything can be extrapolated through the dim filter of McArdle's personal history. When the poor and middle class fail the results can be catastrophic. McArdle peddles her life experiences as advice since surely they are proof of her wisdom. All her failures led to her current success, therefore failure is good. And if she is wrong it does not matter; she is frequently wrong and she succeeds anyway.
... Whether one accepts Lewis’s idea that failure is a gift that keeps on giving or adopts McArdle’s advice that failing well is the best revenge depends, of course, on what you understand by “failure.” Neither book can answer that question for readers, and neither author really tries. Early on, Lewis avers that the word has no stable definition, because as soon as we try to rethink it into a boon or an opportunity, failure is no longer failure and again recedes into shadows or silence. McArdle, for her part, shrugs: “ ‘Failure’ is sort of a junk drawer of a word. We dump all sorts of meanings into it, and then when something goes wrong, we rummage around and pull one out.” This shared evasion is the only serious failure by either author, because it skirts what keeps so many of us awake at night: that we may fail simply by not succeeding, that failure may become an engulfing identity rather than an ennobling opportunity. Regenerative failure is nice work if you can get it, but what if you can’t?It would be unfair to only repeat criticisms and not praise for McArdle's book.
This funny, cheerful look at helping teams overcome failure and find room to experiment will be a boon to business readers.” Publisher's Weekley
“An illuminating look at the psychology behind rebounding from defeat. . . . McArdle has found a humble, intelligent way of infusing positivity and opportunity into personal losses. . . . Her message is a significant one with both personal and economic impact: There can be no vast success without initial failures, and it’s important to foster a culture of risk-takers who embrace experimentation in working outside of their comfort zones. . . . Sage counsel on how to learn from failure with humor and grace.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Megan McArdle has written the seminal book about renewal and American greatness: The Up Side of Down will teach you to embrace failure and use it to reinvent yourself and your organization.” —Tyler CowenIt's too bad that The New York Times has such an iconic place in McArdle's social set. It must have been difficult to realize that everyone she had ever met was going to read the review. But money is a wonderful consolation and who cares if her illusion of intellectual superiority is fake? Her cold, hard cash is not.