An up­lift­ing read

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More­over, her writ­ing has also ap­peared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, The Guardian, Time, and other ven­er­a­ble pub­li­ca­tions on both sides of the At­lantic. In other words she’s no parochial au­thor of sug­ary self-help guides, an im­pres­sion con­veyed by this book’s ti­tle.

The book’s mes­sages are ones most of us al­ready know. We must learn from painful fail­ures. And learn the lessons they pro­vide a lit­tle faster. In short, we must learn to “fail a lit­tle bet­ter”.

Af­ter all, be it in­di­vid­u­als, com­pa­nies or even whole economies, there is no growth or for­ward progress with­out fail­ure.

McAr­dle makes her case with case stud­ies drawn from busi­ness, medicine, psy­chol­ogy, ed­u­ca­tion and other fields. In­deed, she of­fers a de­li­cious cor­nu­copia of fail­ure va­ri­etals.

There an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal thread through this book, with McAr­dle re­lat­ing the rocky nar­ra­tive of her own pro­fes­sional life. This is a tad im­plau­si­ble in places, as one can’t re­ally be­lieve she was plagued by as much bad tim­ing, rot­ten luck and re­gret­table choices, as she main­tains. And her “hot-ticket” pho­to­by­line ac­com­pa­ny­ing her blog for the Daily Beast also makes her vale of tears sound like a bit of stretch. Be­ing blessed in the looks depart­ment mit­i­gates a great deal of po­ten­tial for “fail­ure”, stud­ies have re­peat­edly shown.

This be­ing said, the pas­sages about the “deep soul-crush­ing pe­ri­ods of mis­ery fol­low­ing stupid mis­takes” that im­pris­oned her “in a fog of anx­i­ety and re­gret” are mov­ing, nev­er­the­less.

In any event, McAr­dle makes her point well.

An­other highly re­ward­ing and re­veal­ing part of the book is her look into how child­hood per­cep­tion of­ten af­fects the adults we be­come, and this fea­tures an il­lu­mi­nat­ing study fea­tur­ing two groups of chil­dren who are pro­vided a sim­ple task to ful­fil. Af­ter suc­cess­fully com­plet­ing the task, half of them were ac­claimed for be­ing “very smart”, while the other half were praised for “work­ing very hard”. But when the same groups were given a choice be­tween an­other easy task and a more chal­leng­ing one, the hard work­ers al­ways chose the chal­lenge, while the “smart” ones in­vari­ably chose the eas­ier op­tion.

Fol­low­ing her fo­cus on fail­ures of the in­di­vid­ual, McAr­dle turns to gov­ern­men­tal and cor­po­rate fail­ures and lessons, such as the 1985 mar­ket­ing fail­ure of “New Coke”, and the more re­cent govern­ment bailout of Gen­eral Mo­tors.

One of the most pow­er­ful chap­ters in the book dis­cusses the scourge of long-term un­em­ploy­ment in the West. McCar­dle writes with com­mend­able com­pas­sion about those un­for­tu­nate souls who have been un­em­ployed for longer than a year, and the bar­ri­ers they there­fore face in reen­ter­ing the labour mar­ket.

She pro­vides her take on why the long-term job­less lose mo­men­tum in the hunt for gain­ful em­ploy­ment. The longer they have to look, the more anx­i­ety and un­hap­pi­ness they ex­pe­ri­ence, a point that right-wing world lead­ers like Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron seem obliv­i­ous to.

The au­thor likens un­em­ploy­ment to a dark room in which one has found one­self trapped. The “es­capees” are the ones who keep mov­ing, pur­su­ing mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties, hop­ing and pray­ing that one of them will pay off.

Hav­ing made this ob­ser­va­tion, McAr­dle sen­si­bly of­fers sound ad­vice for un­em­ployed job-seek­ers.

The clever McAr­dle writes with warmth and verve, and this up­lift­ing book re­minds us that it’s OK to fail some­times, and it’s also in­evitable. How­ever, not learn­ing from your fail­ures might ren­der you a ter­mi­nal fail­ure.

The Up Side Of Down is a fine and in­struc­tive read for job-hunters, CEOs, fans of books about pop­u­lar psy­chol­ogy, and just about ev­ery­one in be­tween.

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