The Art of the #fail

Decades of demonizing failure have turned America into a nation of cowards and outcasts. Risk-taking, successful or not, is vital to a resilient society.

Published on: April 25, 2014
Justus Myers is a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Washington, DC.
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  • Curious Mayhem

    I can’t recommend McArdle’s book highly enough. The beneficial effect of moderate, swift, and certain punishment versus “randomized draconianism” (a great term!) has been known for a long time to criminologists and others, who are acknowledged in her book. Much of the problem she describes in lower classes is due to the drug war, which seems as far as ever from being shut down or even modified.

    She gave a talk at the Cato Institute not long ago (recommended viewing):

    On a related note, the absurd “indulgent smothering” of the Millennials by their sanctimonious Boomer parents, striving to make sure that their kids don’t do what they did at the same age, see Lenore Skenazy’s book Free Range Kids, her blog, and her recent Cato talk:

    • Corlyss

      I will definitely look into the book, and thanks for the links to other articles. I wonder if “demonizing failure” would have been possible if the trend hadn’t coincided with other social trends, like the demonizing of competition and competiveness in schools, the celebration of women’s collaborative styles in decision-making in contrast to the hierarchical, the delegitimizing of males and manliness in the culture to include warrior skills, the turning of the American military into a vast sociology experiment that emphasizes touchy-feely services the military can perform rather than warfighting, and probably some others I haven’t thought of yet. Any thoughts?

      • Curious Mayhem

        I’m not sure Americans have demonized failure, so much as learned to blame others for their own failures (see Andrew’s comment below) and especially, more recently, learned to pretend that failure isn’t really failure and expect someone else to deal with it. We saw the latter in spades during the 2007-9 financial crisis. Compare with the S&L crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s to see the immense generational change. Massive government manipulation of accounting standards and financial markets puts the indirect costs on everyone else (direct bailouts, indirect bailouts through zero interest rates, twisting bankruptcy law, etc.).

        As for declines in competitive behavior and “feminization,” sure, it’s also had an effect. But I’ve seen women who are competitive, with both men and other women. “Feminization” is a more general trend of squishiness for everyone, girls and boys. Girls generally can’t compete at the most intense level with boys in athletics — so re-engineer that. Boys sometimes have a harder time in academic settings than girls. So drug the boys, lower standards, etc.

        The issue here is, I believe, that for people to be their best at something requires specialization, which highlights sex and other differences, if we’re speaking of rough group characteristics.

        But achievement is never just a matter of innate ability. Failure can be constructive if it’s a spur to focus and try harder, learn better, etc. We live in a society run by a generation exceptional in its self-absorption and narcissism, which correlate strongly with a sense of entitlement — deserving something without having worked for it. The positive lessons of failure are usually lost on such people.

  • Andrew Allison

    “Decades of demonizing failure have turned America
    into a nation of cowards and outcasts.” is nonsense. Decades of blaming somebody else for personal failures instead of assuming personal responsibility is the problem.

  • Anthony

    Failure is human and to believe otherwise is illusory. Review emphasizes American cultural patterns post World War II in general but underestimates importance of self mastery. Humans compared to many other species have long period of dependency (cultural inculcation which may end between 18 to 25) by which this implicit demonizing author references occur. Accordingly, that period ends and life’s real journey begins (cold world of reality hits). It is this journey by which most Americans (and perhaps others) by dent of failure and how its navigated transition into who they will become – the childhood inculcation cannot preclude the inevitable. It’s not that our culture demonizes failure for many of its citizens but that it fails to level with its members – a topic truly worthy of book status.

  • gabrielsyme

    Maybe we should give Obama a third term. No-one has had the capacity to learn more from failure than he.

    Whether he’s actually learned anything, however, is a disputed question.

    • Curious Mayhem

      He’s had an unusual number of self-created opportunities. But alas, the potential is unlikely to be ever realized.

  • Jim__L

    I’m not convinced that the whole “award for trying” thing is working out well. It’s been tried since I’ve been in school at least. Judging whether someone is actually engaged and trying, is highly subjective and requires evaluation of too many intangibles to work comfortably in our hyper-rational, quantitative culture.

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