An uplifting read
FAILURE is fascinating – especially other people's. This chilling truism is close to the dark side of human nature.
A rather more palatable reality is that we can learn from our mistakes, and so are able to benefit from them. And Washington DC-based Megan McArdle has penned an entire book on this dependable universal truth. She’s done a good job too. This study has depth, variety, and provides entertaining and engaging reading.
Although charmingly self-effacing throughout the book, McArdle has attained some lofty heights, usually – as she herself explains here – from learning from her mistakes.
McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg, for whom she covers economics, business, public policy, and occasionally less-macro topics. She’s also a blogger for the Daily Beast. Also on her CV are stints on staff at The Economist, The Atlantic magazine, and Newsweek.
Moreover, her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Time, and other venerable publications on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words she’s no parochial author of sugary self-help guides, an impression conveyed by this book’s title.
The book’s messages are ones most of us already know. We must learn from painful failures. And learn the lessons they provide a little faster. In short, we must learn to “fail a little better”.
After all, be it individuals, companies or even whole economies, there is no growth or forward progress without failure.
McArdle makes her case with case studies drawn from business, medicine, psychology, education and other fields. Indeed, she offers a delicious cornucopia of failure varietals.
There an autobiographical thread through this book, with McArdle relating the rocky narrative of her own professional life. This is a tad implausible in places, as one can’t really believe she was plagued by as much bad timing, rotten luck and regrettable choices, as she maintains. And her “hot-ticket” photo-byline accompanying her blog for the Daily Beast also makes her vale of tears sound like a bit of stretch. Being blessed in the looks department mitigates a great deal of potential for “failure”, studies have repeatedly shown.
This being said, the passages about the “deep soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes” that imprisoned her “in a fog of anxiety and regret” are moving, nevertheless.
In any event, McArdle makes her point well.
Another highly rewarding and revealing part of the book is her look into how childhood perception often affects the adults we become, and this features an illuminating study featuring two groups of children who are provided a simple task to fulfil. After successfully completing the task, half of them were acclaimed for being “very smart”, while the other half were praised for “working very hard”. But when the same groups were given a choice between another easy task and a more challenging one, the hard workers always chose the challenge, while the “smart” ones invariably chose the easier option.
Following her focus on failures of the individual, McArdle turns to governmental and corporate failures and lessons, such as the 1985 marketing failure of “New Coke”, and the more recent government bailout of General Motors.
One of the most powerful chapters in the book discusses the scourge of long-term unemployment in the West. McCardle writes with commendable compassion about those unfortunate souls who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the barriers they therefore face in reentering the labour market.
She provides her take on why the long-term jobless lose momentum in the hunt for gainful employment. The longer they have to look, the more anxiety and unhappiness they experience, a point that right-wing world leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron seem oblivious to.
The author likens unemployment to a dark room in which one has found oneself trapped. The “escapees” are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities, hoping and praying that one of them will pay off.
Having made this observation, McArdle sensibly offers sound advice for unemployed job-seekers.
The clever McArdle writes with warmth and verve, and this uplifting book reminds us that it’s OK to fail sometimes, and it’s also inevitable. However, not learning from your failures might render you a terminal failure.
The Up Side Of Down is a fine and instructive read for job-hunters, CEOs, fans of books about popular psychology, and just about everyone in between.