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Failing Upward

by Robert VerBruggen

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, by Megan McArdle (Viking, 320 pp., $27.95)

This may not have been the best time for Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle to write a book squarely in the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell.

For whatever reason, Gladwell’s mesmerizing essays, in which he weaves together stories and social-science research to arrive at (allegedly) mind-blowing conclusions, hit a “tipping point” of their own in late 2013. What had started as the occasional drip of acid from a critic became a flood of derision. Slate and The New Republic ran lengthy pieces bashing Gladwell. Salon’s Alex Pareene included the writer in his annual year-end list of journalistic “hacks.”

Fortunately, though, Megan McArdle is no hack; she is a serious analyst and a deservedly prominent pundit on a wide range of issues. And while The Up Side of Down exudes a please-buy-me-at-the-airport-bookstore vibe — one chapter has the subtitle “What a Bad Breakup Can Tell Us about the GM Bailout” — it introduces readers to a bevy of fascinating, important, and, yes, counterintuitive social-science findings. McArdle is indeed trying to “captivate fans of Malcolm Gladwell,” as her publisher’s promotional material puts it; but, unlike the undisputed kingpin of this genre, she is not peddling nonsense.

The book’s central theme is that it matters how we fail: Sometimes failure crushes us, sometimes we bounce back, and sometimes we even learn from it and become stronger. In true Gladwellian form, McArdle explores this topic freely rather than trying to nail down a specific overall thesis.

One significant argument she makes echoes that of Uncontrolled, a recent book from NR contributor Jim Manzi (whom she quotes a few times): Often, it works better to experiment freely than to make huge investments in a particular way of doing things.

McArdle relates a project in which various groups were asked to build the tallest structure possible out of spaghetti and tape. Unsurprisingly, the engineers beat out the business-school students (who spent too much time arguing about who got to be CEO). But the winners were the kindergarteners — who, instead of painstakingly planning a structure based on the established laws of physics, simply started building and then discarded ideas that didn’t work. They also thought outside the box, or maybe cheated a bit, asking for more spaghetti — a possibility not mentioned when the materials were provided.

“Experiment more and be creative” is good advice, but McArdle doesn’t shy away from the fact that it can be difficult to implement. Even if an experiment goes well, there’s no guarantee it can be replicated everywhere; especially in education, reforms often work when implemented by a small and passionate group of teachers but can’t survive the transition to the rest of the system. Or look at “New Coke,” a fresh flavor that got a huge thumbs-up from taste testers before it spectacularly failed in the actual market. It’s always important to know the limits of your experiments.

And of course there’s the question of what we’re willing to lose for the sake of seeing what works and learning from it. McArdle says that in letting people abandon their debts easily in bankruptcy when they fail, the U.S. creates an environment conducive to entrepreneurialism, for example — but she found it hard to overcome her opposition to the practice of walking away from commitments one has made, and many readers will have the same resistance. And McArdle might go a little too far when she says that we should bring high monkey bars back to playgrounds so kids can learn “that the price of reaching lofty heights is the occasional broken arm.” Most parents would probably rather have their kids practice their coordination on safer playground equipment, saving the little ones some pain and themselves the medical bills, which can run to thousands of dollars.

The monkey-bar example is at odds with another point McArdle makes: Small, consistent punishment for failure is a lot better than dramatic, unpredictable penalties like broken arms. The most important example of this is the Hawaii HOPE program, in which probationers are watched closely, drug-tested frequently, and punished with a short jail sentence for any missteps — whereas, elsewhere, probationers’ minor violations are ignored for a period of time until law enforcement gets fed up and sends them to prison for years.

The program results in less incarceration despite setting a much lower bar for punishment. When punishment is consistent, even if it’s small, people come to comprehend that their own behavior is what determines their treatment — they develop what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” There are similar situations throughout our society: When we give all kids a trophy, for example, we send them the message that their performance doesn’t matter and deny them the experience of small failures. This just sets them up for big failures down the road.

There’s a lot more in The Up Side of Down; one positive side effect of McArdle’s freewheeling approach to her topic is that she never lacks for interesting anecdotes and concepts. She explains how, thanks to the “normalcy bias,” passengers on crashing planes often act as if nothing is happening, even hesitating to leave the plane because they’ll lose their luggage. This bias is also why it takes a crisis for a company like GM to make the deep changes it needs to survive. There’s a chapter focusing on hospital accidents, a three-step process to overcome unemployment (look for a job, lower your salary requirements, and move somewhere else if there are no jobs near you), and even an explanation of how attitudes toward failure underlie ideological differences (conservatives emphasize the link between personal effort and success, while liberals emphasize the random and structural factors that lead some to succeed while others fail).

With this book, McArdle has applied her own brand of intellectually credible analysis and given us an insightful tour through current research about failure. This won’t be the most tightly focused book you’ll read in 2014, but it will be one of the most interesting.

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