Books in Brief

Reflections of a Rockefeller. Failing one's way to success.

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Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself: A Memoir

By Eileen Rockefeller
Industrial titan John Rockefeller is an American icon for wealth, fame, and power. His great-granddaughter Eileen currently lives a modest life on a Vermont farm. How she reconciled these two existences is the subject of her new memoir, which traces the trajectory of her life and the many troubles that entered it despite her family’s resources and prestige. The author thus recasts one of America’s most glamorous families in a more human light.


“Real richness and power comes not from the amount of money,” Rockefeller writes, “but from our connections.” She offers intimate glimpses of her family, from her father’s obsession with beetles to the summers she, her siblings, and her mother spent constructing a cabin on an island in Maine. The first half of the book focuses on her often unhappy childhood. Her mother’s depression and her father’s absence left a brood of neglected children. Eileen, the youngest, was a timid and lonely youngster, and it took many decades for her to get beyond this.

Readers looking for philanthropic rather than personal insights into the Rockefellers will not find much here. The charming anecdotes throughout the book make it entertaining to read, but the private stories heavily outnumber substantive discussions. Eileen’s most cherished philanthropic accomplishment, founding the Institute for the Advancement of Health to foster the study of mind-body connections in disease and wellness, is touched on in one chapter. Even less attention is paid to her work in founding Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, or her involvement, with her husband Paul Growald, in the Growald Family Fund.

Rockefeller refers indirectly to her family’s changing views on public activity and giving. Discussing the events of a meeting at the family estate in 2000, she emphasizes the difference between her generation of Rockefellers and the one before it, which was more focused on politics and prominent displays of wealth. “We chose quieter paths, went incognito, and found as much value in helping a few people as in helping a nation,” she writes. Her light treatment of these topics leaves room for future books on how families can change their use of wealth, even as wealth changes the family.

Kara Runsten


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.

Caitrin Nicol Keiper