on February 11, 2014
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I have to say I started this book expecting a touchy-feely, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" tome full of inspirational stories and ten point lists of Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around.
Instead, the book turned out to be a thoughtful, well researched discussion of failure, from medical mistakes to personal job loss to the economic crash of 2008.
As it turns out there is a lot of useful information in this book. It's presented in such a way that you understand why you handled your own mistakes and failures the way you did, as well as offering advice that could help you change the way you handle things in the future.
There are times where I disagreed with McCardle's reasoning (cutting off employment benefits for example). She is a Libertarian blogger, so she does show her bias. But she makes her case without resorting to vitriol or disrespect.
I volunteer with an organization that helps unemployed people find jobs and I plan on donating my copy of "The Upside of Down" as a reference book.
on February 13, 2014
Failure. We've all experienced it. Can we benefit from it? The answer is maybe, depending on the costs of failure.
If the costs of failure are high, e.g., repaying debts for the rest of life, people will avoid taking risks. As a result, society will stagnate, because few take risks.
But if the costs of failure are low, people will take more chances, start more businesses, try experiments that might prove something bold. That is one great thing about America; the penalties for failure are low. Some have said we are the land of unlimited second chances. After resigning from the presidency, Richard Nixon became an influential voice on foreign policy.
Megan McArdle uses her own life and many other societal problems to illustrate how a proper use of failure can benefit individuals and society as a whole. Failure is how we learn. As some have said, "The wise learn from the failures of others, normal people learn from their own failures, but the stupid don't learn."
I enjoyed this book a great deal, but I want to point out a few of the chapters that particularly struck me.
In Chapter 8, she described the various ways that ideologues described the causes of the financial crisis. The Left and the Right chose their own monologues to explain the economic failure that occurred. The truth was far more banal, as average people bought into a housing mania, with financial institutions more than willing to facilitate it, levered as they were. When the bull market ended, many people found themselves with too much debt relative to the value of their houses.
Chapter 9 was the one from which I learned the most, as it described a probation method used in Hawaii, that I would describe as the judicial equivalent of spanking. When one on probation violates a term of probation, he gets sent to a rather grim prison for a short period of time. Like spanking, it is short, and sharp. Those on probation get tested randomly and regularly. Most quickly get the idea that they need to change their lives. The recidivism rate on this program is low. Small failures get punished. Resistance to the system means permanent jail. No failures means freedom.
But what I really appreciated in the book was the willingness of the author to expose her own life failures -- jobs, caring for her mother's health, bad relationships, etc. She learned from her mistakes, and ended up with a husband who loves her, a good job, and a home in DC, where there is not much debt on the property. Well done.
My own life has had its share of failures, and they have all taught me something. The question to you, reader, is what have you learned from your failures? Memorialize failures, so that you can avoid them and their cousins in the future. In that sense you can fail well.
There is not a bad chapter in this book. I recommend it highly, and you will learn a lot. I learned a lot.
Who would benefit from this book: Anyone could benefit from this great book.
on February 11, 2014
The Up Side of Down argues that we all must learn to fail a little better, a little faster and to, most importantly, learn from the experience. There is no growth without failure, whether we’re talking economies or individuals.
McCardle bolsters her case with examples from business, medicine, physchology and economics. Discussing everything from the learning styles of children to the Solyndra debacle, she offers a kaleidoscope-look at the varieties of American failure.
And she makes a really important point on failure – we’re a nation founded by people who couldn’t hack it in the Old World. It wasn’t comfortable lords who built this country but starving peasants willing to risk a sea voyage for the opportunity to start anew. These failures created the greatest nation on earth.
One of the best chapters in the book discusses the plague of long-term unemployment, a problem once unique to Europe that has become an American scourge. McCardle writes with great compassion about people who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the cruelties of the job market that keep them that way. She likens unemployment to a dark room that you’ve stumbled into. The people who get out are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities in hopes that one of them will pay off.
This is not a gooey self-help book. Instead, it's a master class on the benefits of failure, exploring research and case studies to make the argument that failure is a great teacher and an inevitable step on the road to success.
on March 23, 2014
"Multiple iterations almost always beats single-minded focus around a single idea." We don't have to get it right the first time, or even a majority of times. Instead, it is in getting things wrong that we learn to ultimately get them right. Megan McArdle writes a fun, engaging, and convincing book that tells us success is often learned through failure.
While most of us pay lip service to the value in making mistakes, few of us truly live this out functionally in our lives. We are not talking in this book about minor lapses in judgment; we are talking about full-blown failure -- a collapsed company or a bankrupt individual. If we really believed failure was actually beneficial to us, we would have started that business, begun writing that blog, asked out that attractive girl/guy, or flailed in front of the entire company for the big presentation.
Her style reminded me of Gladwell - her writing is readable, and loaded with relevant, interesting stories. It's a non-fiction book that reads like fiction. McArdle's book could benefit anyone, regardless of vocation or political beliefs. While she is a libertarian blogger, McArdle was willing to point out the good and the bad of both conservatives and liberals. In other words, she does not come off as a "bunker mentality" libertarian (I myself am a libertarian, so I make that comment from inside the camp).
There are ten chapters in the book, and every one of them was interesting to me. I will comment briefly on the three chapters I found most beneficial.
In chapter one, "Failure is Fundamental", we see the difference between those that "think talent is a fixed thing that you're either born with or not", versus the people that think talent is "something you can nourish by doing stuff you're not good at." Applying this to parenting, McArdle explains we should praise children for how hard they worked at something -- rather than telling them how pretty or smart they are. The kids did nothing to learn or develop those latter qualities, hence leading them to believe giftedness is inherited (false). Clearly, the viewpoint that failure is critical runs counter to today's public school system and community sports leagues, where every kid is "special" and a "winner".
In chapter nine, "Punishment", McArdle recounts the dramatic success of Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement Program (HOPE). HOPE has drastically cut incarceration rates and drug use among probationers in the program, using the principle that punishment (i.e. consequences) must be applied swiftly, consistently, and with an eye toward the future (hope for the prbationer's future success, not on their past mistakes). McArdle dovetails this story with the applications for parents in disciplining their children.
In chapter ten, "Forgiveness: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Easy Bankruptcy (Though Not Personally)", the content is framed by the story of Dave Ramsey, one of America's foremost personal finance gurus. McArdle shows us that easy bankruptcy laws in the US are surprisingly a boon to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs can take a big risk on starting a company - with bankruptcy as a viable last resort if things go wrong. She points out that many European nations have extremely stiff bankruptcy laws (that is, laws making bankruptcy follow a person their entire life), and what follows these tight laws is a much lower level of entrepreneurs in those countries.
While I was generally positive on this book, there were times I felt the book contained too many anecdotes. If anecdotes are accompanied by plentiful hard data, that's great. But sometimes in this book, McArdle seemed content to let the anecdotes stand alone for her views. For instance, in the "Forgivness" chapter dealing with debt, she recounts the story of Kennet, a Danish photographer. In short, Kennet went bankrupt after the housing market crashed and his business income faltered (partly thanks to the rise of digital photography, a game-changer for his industry). Kennet was saddled with an "$80,000 debt, and thousands in annual interest payments." Kennet is made out to be a sad story of helpless citizens being unable to shed their debt. Rather than change careers, add a second job, or cut his spending to the bone ("beans and rice", in the words of Dave Ramsey), he wanted to keep on as life was before it all went south. Yet, anyone who has seen or heard of the powerful debt turnaround stories of people following Dave Ramsey's message would quickly realize than $80K of debt is anything but insurmountable. Kennet's story was brought up repeatedly throughout the chapter, which gave it much more weight (in McArdle's eyes) than I felt it merited. Check out the website No More Harvard Debt, then tell me if $80,000 of debt is the equivalent of lifelong servitude to creditors. No way.
The major takeaway for me is to take more chances. Heck, even writing this book review is me risking failure. Because I know the unwritten review in my head is always going to be better than the mediocre review that is typed onto my computer screen. But the act of doing - and sometimes failing - will refine me in the process, and lead me closer to success.
on February 11, 2014
Ms. McArdle has a wry, sometime cynical sense of humor. Her own story of how she did NOT get married is insightful, once you get past the fact that it can't have been much fun at the time. Same with Megan's mom's appendix. Interesting now. Then, ick. What makes this book so terrific, though, is the way the author actually does connect with her central theme of learning from failure. Her fiance didn't fight because he didn't really want to get married. Her mom's appendicitis felt better because her appendix had burst. A wonderful, warm book. I alternated between laughing out loud and writing down a list of "things to do from now on" while I read it.
on March 16, 2014
While the book presents an interesting range of observations and theories around the concept and handling of failure I felt that it suffered from a surfeit of anecdotes that distracted from the core message. This is not to deny that the book is well researched and referenced and often does cite research, but it is sometimes easy to get lost in the "human interest" that takes up a significant part of the text. I think the book would be better in a more concise version or with the addition of a concluding summary chapter that ties together the points of the individual chapters.
on March 7, 2014
In today's world, where higher education is undergoing a crisis for decades' worth of having overenrolled and underprepared its students for the real world, this book comes as a very welcome-- and in my opinion correct-- fresh argument: that we often learn more, and more deeply, by doing than by hearing or reading. There may be no more powerful mindset than that of giving oneself permanent permission to try new things and stink at them at first -- because another phrase for that is "embracing challenge." I hope this work will stimulate educational institutions to move more into practical experience by requiring students to work internships during their education and by partnering with local private businesses to create them. It sure would have helped me in college. This is a must-read.
on June 4, 2014
This is the first book that I have read where the title and book jacket description do not match the content of the book. Lots of anecdotes and citations of studies that have nothing much to do with "The UP Side of Down-Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success". Spaghetti experiment, Carol Dweck, Whiffle Parenting, market equilibrium, hunters and gatherers vs agriculture, Enron, Welfare reform, bankruptcy, Nummi-GM, invisible guerrilla, Medical errors, Hope program, Dave Ramsey, Pathways to Housing, video games... McArdale patches stories from all over, but it does not click together. Her husband loses his job and she advises him to play lots of video games because she read studies that show that "video games in medical settings as a way to help preoperative patients cope with pain and anxiety". Her advice for the unemployed contradict her own writings where she admits that no one is reading resumes on job boards and she got her job from a personal connection.
In chapter 4 she writes at length about her mom's sickness due to a ruptured appendix and on page 91 she lists her activity (13 things) online and offline one of them is " Looked up intestinal blockage on the Mayo Clinic website" along with "Ate 150 calories worth of diet cookies". Not much for investigative journalism she fails to spend those wasteful days plugging in symptoms on the web to try to find out what the doctors can't for the first few days. But where are the examples of the up side of down? She points out how at the end all was well and all went well for her mom. But how is that an example of failing well? Where are the examples of failing well? The only example of Failing well is the Hope approach to probation in Hawaii which is really an example of failing less. It is as if she wrote a book and someone else stamped out the title and book jacket description. Her mother suffers needlessly and could have died due to incompetence and is just lucky she did not die.
On page 168 she writes " So you know why we have Kentucky Fried Chicken? Because the government constructed a new highway, interstate 75, diverting the traffic that had previously run past Harlan Sander's restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky". That is not accurate since Sander already was franchising in 1952 and sold his first restaurant due to reduced traffic in 1955. On page 121 she relates the economics of "sunk costs" after spending 119 minutes watching an awful movie which her boyfriend wanted to leave after the first ten minutes and she after twenty minutes. Yet McArdale is unaware that all major movie theaters have a refund policy so that if you don't like the first 10-20 minutes all you have to do is see the manager and you get a refund. "My husband and I are both journalists, an industry that is even less secure than it was ten years ago..." What industry? She read that in an article somewhere. She highlights a Danish photographer who is bankrupt due largely to the fact that everyone can now take a pictures or video and the same is true for the "profession" of journalism. Megan praises the U.S. bankruptcy system so I expected to see examples of people going through bankruptcy and using it as a way to fail well but not in this book.
On a Youtube video ( last two three minutes) entitled " Megan McArdale; Freeing the Economy-September 17,2013" describes her "work" as a blogger starting out at around 6:30AM reading in her bathrobe on the couch a hundred articles+ on her RSS reader plus dozens of other blogs and arrives at some article of her own around the afternoon and she listens/watches MSNBC, Fox news, and CNN. Of course MacArdle cannot find any person or industry who is responsible for the recent crash. Actually it is this type of close looped journalism/blogging where everyone reads everyone's stuff and parrots this junk in a hollow cave. Unoriginal and with no real depth journalism is her preferred signature form. She laughs at how a former colleague who picks stocks told her to contact him with her stock picks so he could short them since she always picks losers. What is scary is how a white privileged woman with wealthy parents who lived on the Upper West Side, went to an elite private school in Manhattan, with top tier higher education could fail so well- even with all the privileges, entitlements and connections. She spent $80,000 on business school and lost another $80,000 in opportunity costs for two years not working and now is a writer/blogger? Is that failing well and the Up side of Down?
on February 12, 2014
The author's Bloomberg column is an oasis of common sense, expertise, and courtesy in the desert of public policy blogs, and her book is just as good. Plus, any woman this smart who starts off her book giving thanks for her husband, her job, her house, and her dog is clearly well grounded. Watch out, David Brooks; the pundit in your rear-view mirror is closer than she appears.
on March 23, 2014
You know you're off to a good start when you find a gem in the preface.
"The metaphor for our age is the disappearance of high monkey bars from playgrounds across the country. We have made it impossible for children to fall very far-- and in so doing, we have robbed them of the joys of climbing high."
This is a must read for "Generation Entitled", of whom 29% are still living with Mommy and Daddy, afraid to step into the void and see if anything will catch their foot.