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Friday, February 21, 2014

What Mark Twain, Van Halen and Dan Rather Teach Us About Failure 02-22

What Mark Twain, Van Halen and Dan Rather Teach Us About Failure

Mark Twain remains one of the most-quoted authors in American history, the creator of masterpieces such as “Huckleberry Finn” and “Life on the Mississippi.”
And much of what he wrote was dreck.
That last fact ought to be inspiring to all of us, notes author Megan McArdle in her clever, surprising fast-paced and enlightening book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. McArdle explains that a college English course she took recast Twain as a writer who failed like the rest of us: 
In the 1890s, Twain “churned out lackluster prose on an almost industrial scale, just to get enough money to maintain his household and pay his debts,” McArdle writes. “But almost no English class reads the eminently forgettable stuff he produced during this period.”
Tom Sawyer, Detective isn’t on too many college reading lists. But reading this poorly-structured throwaway work was a lesson to McArdle that even great writers aren’t great all the time — that they suffer from misbegotten ideas, false starts and off-days like the rest of us. Knowing that makes it easier to take on a career as a writer — or an entrepreneur. “The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
It’s okay to fail, and as Americans we understand this liberating fact better than, say, Europeans or Asians. When you meet business executives who have worked in different cultures overseas, they’ll tell you that having been a leader of a company that failed in these countries generally means you no longer have a career. 
Not so here: having a big stinking failure in your past is “often a résumé booster–particularly in the fertile fields of Silicon Valley,” notes McArdle, who put a couple of startup meltdowns on her own résumé before becoming a renowned economics blogger.
Trial and error with complex systems led the rock band Van Halen to an ingenious tripwire system that inspired a colossally misunderstood celebrity factoid: the band’s insistence that no brown M&M candies be seen backstage has become synonymous with daft rock-and-roll  imperiousness. The band’s singer David Lee Roth, though, explained in a memoir that Van Halen was the first band to take mammoth stage productions to third-tier markets. 
Often, the result was technical error — “the girders wouldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in.” The contract rider that carried all of the specifications necessary to avert catastrophe was mammoth, and laden with safety warnings about, say, the proper spacing of fifteen amperage voltage sockets. Out of nowhere, in article 126, would come this addendum: “There will be no brown M & Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”
Van Halen in 2008. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Roth would stroll backstage before the show, and if he saw that no one bothered to spend two minutes removing the brown M&Ms, he guessed that staffers didn’t exercise much attention to detail when it came to the important matters either. The presence of brown M & Ms was a warning to “line-check the entire production,” he wrote. 
“They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.” Economists call this kind of negligence “normative error,” and the members of Van Halen protected themselves against this level of failure by hiding an alarm system in Article 126 of their standard rider.
What happens when massive failure happens anyway? McArdle suggests studying the case of Dan Rather, who during his CBS CBS +0.14% career was one of the most revered television journalists in history until the presidential campaign of 2004, when his career unraveled quickly after he aired a report purporting to prove then-president George W. Bush had shirked his duties in the Vietnam era while a member of the Texas Air National Guard. Rather failed to notice a problem first identified, McArdle relates, in comment no. 47 about the story on the Free Republic blog.
 “A champagne glass was probably still clinking at CBS,” writes McArdle, when this pseudonymous commenter pointed out that the documents that appeared likely to cost President Bush re-election appeared to be faked. (Said by Rather and Co. to date from the 1970s, they used proportionally-spaced fonts unlike the monospaced fonts that would have been used on a typewriter in that period.)
The inability to notice such obvious details while the attention is focused elsewhere is called “inattentional blindness,” but that’s not what cost Rather his career.  “The truly amazing thing about the story of Dan Rather and [producer] Mary Mapes is not that they let a hoax get on air,” writes McCardle. “It’s their dogged inability to recognize that they’d done so after it was pointed out to them.” Urged on by Rather, CBS continued to stand by its story for 12 days of increasingly untenable followup reporting, even resorting to the ludicrous stance that no one had proven the documents were fake, as though the burden of proof were not its own.
Though it’s unpleasant and sometimes even humiliating to do so, news organizations retract incorrect or unverifiable stories all the time. Rather didn’t, and so CBS retracted him. What happened with the veteran news anchor is what McArdle calls “bending the map.” She cites psychologist Edward Cornell’s point, “Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like, ‘Well, that lake could have dried up’ or ‘That boulder could have moved,’ a red light should go on.
 You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there.” Rather bent the map so badly he didn’t notice that his wrong turn was about to result in his falling off a cliff. Acknowledging failure, McArdles teaches us in her engrossing book, is a necessary first step in learning from it.

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