Career Advice Career Books Recommendations

Failing forwards

Success is all about the ability to fail a little better than before

Failure is fascinating – especially the failures of other people. This chilling truism is close to the heart of our hard-boiled city, whose business is making a buck in an environment characterised by sharp business practices.

A rather more palatable reality is that we can learn from our mistakes and benefit from them. Washington DC-based author Megan McArdle has penned an entire book – The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success – 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, McArdle has attained some lofty heights, usually – as she explains – by learning from her mistakes. She 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 and has had stints at The Economist, The Atlantic 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 faster. In short, we must learn to “fail a little better”. After all, be it individuals, companies or whole economies, there is no growth or progress without failure.

McArdle gets her points across with case studies from the fields of business, medicine, psychology, education and more. Indeed, she offers a delicious cornucopia of failure varietals.

An autobiographical thread runs 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.

That said, passages on the “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes” that imprisoned her “in a fog of anxiety and regret” are nevertheless moving. In any event, she makes her point well.

Another highly rewarding and revealing area is her look at how childhood perception often affects the adults we become, and this features an illuminating study of two groups of children given a simple task. After successfully completing the task, half were praised for being “very smart”, and the others lauded for “working very hard”. But when given a choice between another easy task and a more challenging one, the hard workers always chose challenge, while the “smart” ones invariably picked the softer option.

Following her focus on failures of the individual, McArdle also deals with governmental and corporate failures and lessons, such as the 1985 marketing failure of New Coke, and the more recent General Motors bailout.

One of the most powerful chapters discusses the scourge of long-term unemployment. McArdle writes with commendable compassion about those unfortunate souls who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the barriers they face in re-entering the labour market.

She gives her take on why the long-term jobless slack off in the hunt for employment. The longer they have to look, the more anxiety and unhappiness they experience. She 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, she sensibly offers some sound advice for jobseekers.

McArdle writes with warmth and verve. Her uplifting book reminds us that it’s okay to fail sometimes, and that it’s inevitable. But not learning from it may render you a terminal failure. The Up Side of Down is a fine and instructive read for job-hunters, CEOs and everyone in between.


Getting back in the saddle

Anne Dcruz is a language specialist in Singapore’s education sector. A reader of McArdle’s blogs, here are her own thoughts on overcoming adversity.
Talk it out “I talk to friends who are more experienced than I am. They can offer a less emotional perspective of the situation. If the suggestions sound sensible and workable, I implement them. A burden shared is a burden halved.”
Think of the good times “Setbacks can be demoralising. At these times, I recall my past successes to re-motivate myself.”
Focus on yourself “It’s pointless to lay blame on other people. I can only change myself, not them.”
Have a chuckle “I laugh about falling down with close friends, in order to de-stress before ‘getting back in the saddle’.”
Avoid being stubborn “Even if you are right, you have to be flexible to adapt to the situation at hand. Many people dig their own graves because of stubbornness.”