The Up Side of Down

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I've been reading Megan McArdle ever since she emerged from obscurity as "Jane Galt" on her "Live from the WTC" post-9/11 blog. So checking out her first book, The Up Side of Down, was an easy pick.

The book is (roughly) about failure. As the title implies, it's not all bad! Good news for those of us whose personal lives and professional careers have had a few jarring bumps along the way. (I might especially recommend the book to anyone in the midst of such a setback.)

Megan (I call her Megan) tells the anecdote that undergirds her philosophy of failure:

There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success. “Good judgment,” says the magnate.

His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly. “And how do you get good judgment?”

“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.

“And how do you get experience?”

“Bad judgment!”

It's funny because it's true.

The book is wide-ranging (some might say "rambling"), but there are all kinds of "shit happens" events that happen to people. There are mistakes, malfeasance, miscommunications, … None are much fun, but they oft contain the seeds of future success.

"Wide-ranging" might be an understatement: for example, there's an interesting section on bankruptcy. (No, I'm not kidding.) It turns out the USA's bankruptcy laws are very lenient compared to European countries; given our hardnosed reputation compared to the mushy socialists of Eurpe, that's kind of surprising. Megan argues this is a good thing: the important part of this particular mode of financial failure is that one can start afresh and do better the next time around.

Another chapter finds Megan investigating a response to a totally different brand of failure: Hawaii's Project HOPE is a probation setup for criminals who need to be weaned from the bad habits that brought them afoul of the law. Monitoring the offender is ongoing; infractions are dealt with promptly and without uncertainty—it's back to jail for at least a few days. This, Megan argues convincingly, is much more effective than the standard setup on the mainland. It's also cheaper, since (in the long term) recidivism is decreased.

This is standard investigative/advocacy journalism, but Megan is not reluctant to bring up examples from her own life: her rocky romances (again: not kidding); getting out of debt and getting back into it by buying a house; her professional setbacks (going from a Chicago MBA to Bloomberg journalist is not a typical career path). And even the story of her mother's dicey encounter with appendicitis; the diagnosis was botched, the hospital staff didn't always follow sterile practices, and so on. (I happened to read this part concurrently with reading about medical risks in The Norm Chronicles, so, yes, stay out of the hospital if you can. It's not the safest place to be.)

Megan's a fine journalist-style writer (although she never lapses into the dread USA Today-ease breeziness, thank goodness). I'll mention one quibble: on page 65, a paragraph begins:

Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign against a probably fictional "welfare queen" tapped into middle-class America's growing belief that […]

Two serious things wrong here:

  1. "Welfare queen"-in-quotes implies that's a term Reagan actually used at the time. He didn't, as near as anyone can tell. (He did use the term once in one of his post-campaign radio commentaries, as an example of what other people were calling her.)

  2. The person Reagan referred to wasn't fictional at all.

I blogged about the Reagan "welfare queen" mythology here.

Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:28 PM EST