In 2011 I read a terrific book called Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, by entrepreneur Peter Sims. I reviewed it here. Literature about the virtue of failure resonates with me because I have “failed” my way into many opportunities. When journalist Megan McArdle recently published The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, I was curious to see how it would differ from Little Bets.
Sims focused on people and organizations that failed, either intentionally or unintentionally, before they succeeded. It reads, properly, like a business book—the type of thing business owners and project managers should understand before tackling projects.
McArdle explores failure by weaving personal anecdotes, research, experts, psychological biases, history and current events. Little Bets was, “These guys failed, and here’s what you can learn from it.” Up Side is, “We, as a nation, should do all we can to encourage small, quick failures and limit their consequences. It’s how we can get the best out of our people and institutions.” The takeaway is basically the same, but the scope is wider and the stakes are higher in Up Side.
Like McArdle’s columns and feature articles, Up Side is easy to read, interesting and does not beat the reader over the head with ideology. The chapter about her mother’s illness—and the failures Medicare, her mother, herself and the hospital staff made—might keep you from ever entering a hospital again (although you still should.) Did you know lenient bankruptcy laws make for good business? I didn’t before reading Up Side. Chapter 9, which is about punishing bad behavior, is one of those pieces of journalism you hope every lawmaker in the country reads.
Obviously, I liked the book.
On her personal blog, McArdle asked readers to send in their stories of failure. I emailed her a link to the story of how I failed to get through my first date with my wife without destroying two dress shirts. McArdle posted an excerpt of that story on her blog. But she failed to link to the rest of the story, so her readers had no closure. Did he have another shirt in his car? Was there a second date? Why are gravity and marinara sauce so cruel? But this failure led to an opportunity. I emailed McArdle about the omitted link. She emailed back, and I had a brief-but-pleasant back-and-forth with an author whose work I enjoy.
Hooray for failure.
Joe Donatelli is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Follow him @joedonatelli.