Review of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success
By Megan McArdle
“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Bill Gates’s oft-quoted adage is by now a staple of inspirational messaging in business, philanthropy, the classroom, and beyond. And if the sentiment is not especially original, his own immense success lends it an authority that eclipses the more painful half of the equation. Failure, it implies, is just a waystation to the inevitable happy ending.
At first glance, Megan McArdle’s new book The Up Side of Down seems to do the same. It is the perfect cheery title to appear in this enduringly sluggish economy. But it amounts to both less and more than a trite guarantee: From corporate crashes to medical errors to Hollywood flops to personal ruin, the book offers a candid reckoning of how badly things really can go wrong, and a field guide to why and how “failure can be the best thing that ever happened to you (though it may sometimes feel like the worst).”
McArdle, an economics columnist for Bloomberg View, blends autobiography and incisive research and analysis to make her case. Of particular interest to philanthropists will be the section on “the peril of the promising pilot”—why taking what seems to be a great project and expanding it often doesn’t work. She surveys a number of celebrated launches gone awry, and notes that the difference in how they ultimately fared was not due to the level of risk undertaken, or the amount of information collected beforehand, but whether or not the directors were brutally honest with themselves when the results were not as expected—honest enough to change course.
That’s logical enough, if hard to take to heart. One of the more counterintuitive chapters describes a Hawaii probation experiment—“the best thing that’s happened to crime since the invention of police”—in which parole violators willingly, repeatedly, enthusiastically return to jail. Another explains why America’s lenient bankruptcy laws, seen worldwide as a puzzling weakness, are actually a source of vitality and strength.
In helping readers make better friends with failure, The Up Side of Down does two important things. First, it warns against technocratic arrogance: “the idea that someone who is sufficiently smart and dedicated can engineer the risk out of the system.” And second, it delivers an ode to American resilience, one that anybody worried for our future will be glad to hear.