The Corner

Success Uber Alles

Lee Harris has a very interesting piece on America’s “pagan” love of success. I think it’s very interesting because it is, but I think at a basic level he’s wrong. My own reading of America’s business culture and even its culture generally is that we are amazingly forgiving of failure. Business men run two, three, five companies into the ground before they come up with a winner. In America, unlike say Japan or Europe, a guy who makes a lot of mistakes is “experienced.” A man who’s run five businesses into the ground and succeeds with the sixth is an “entrepreneur.” In the broader culture I think we forgive failure so long as it comes with contrition of some kind — we call them “second acts” and the list of famous people who’ve had them is endless.

I should also say that one could even define conservatism as the persistent faith in the possibility of human failure.

Where I think Harris is right is that we expect success from people who claim to demand success. The Bush team, for example, gets a very hard time for its perceived arrogance. We tend to judge people by the standards they set for themselves. That’s why, by the way, I set my public standards so low — so that I seem to achieve excellence with such stunning regularity!


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