Friday, May 2, 2014

The Up Side of Down

Brilliant EconTalk interview with Megan McArdle author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success:

Russ: So, let's talk about survivorship bias, which is something that I thought of while reading your book. The book is very inspiring at many, many different levels, personal, policy-wise, etc. We'll get to the policy stuff next. But the thought I had when you talk about these examples is it's very easy to romanticize failure if you are not careful. So, Colonel Sanders gets beat up, knocked down, but eventually becomes fabulously successful. Same with Steve Jobs--fired, failed new company, looks like his story is over but he persists and he makes it. And let's be optimistic--let's say he did learn and that was part of the reason he made it. What we don't see are the people who get beat up, give up, fail, try again, fail, and never learn enough to succeed. And so these stories about the virtues of failure are very unrepresentative of what failure really does. Failure is not good. It's awful. It's demoralizing. You don't learn that much, because a lot of it's luck. And as a result, failure is--you are making it sound like there's this great learning experience; actually, it stinks. And we only think it's good because we see the ones who survived it somehow. What do you think of that?

McArdle: Well, let me make a couple of points about that. I think that's a completely fair question. And I really tried hard to avoid that, actually. I tried to avoid saying, oh, this is just, learn to love failure and it will be fantastic. Failure doesn't feel good. Right? I went through it. It's terrible. It really is terrible. It doesn't just kind of, you know, sometimes feel terrible. It always feels terrible. And even people who are optimistic don't like it. It's not like Steve Jobs enjoyed getting fired. He was pretty beat down about it. And then he got up and founded Next; and angry and so forth. But he didn't like it. So it's not about learning to like failure and think that it's just a walk in the park and a garden of roses all rolled into one, because that's not true. And the second thing is it really is true that it can be phenomenally difficult to recover. And some people don't. And I try not to say otherwise. And the third thing is that yes, luck--in fact I wrote one of the chapters about this, about the way that we tell stories in retrospect and we say, oh, well, I can describe the Mona Lisa and the things that make it the Mona Lisa, and we leave out things like the fact that it wasn't very famous until it got stolen in the early 20th century. And what Duncan Watts, the sociologist, says is we are telling a story why we think the Mona Lisa is famous, but what we are actually doing is just describing the Mona Lisa. And all of those things are true. But here's what is also true. First is that, I love those movies where they say: Failure is not an option. Like, failure is always an option. There's no--um. Second is the price of admission to success is the willingness to fail. That, being willing to fail does not guarantee that you will you succeed; but not being willing to fail guarantees that you won't. And the third thing is that after you recognize that, right, after you've recognized that the only possibility for me having the kind of success that I wanted is taking some pretty big risks, is that you need to first of all plan for that and try to minimize the downside. It's not about taking stupid risks. It's not about saying, well, we'll do anything.

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