26 April 2014

The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by MeganMcArdle [2014]

I picked this up after watching the author speak about the book on the Microsoft Research visiting speakers lecture programme which has some really interesting people on it.  She was also a participant in my favourite podcast Econtalk recently.  McArdle covers most of the interesting points in her Microsoft presentation, but I am still glad I read the book because it reinforced what for me was the most interesting point she makes - namely the corrosive effect of repeated success in childhood on later life.  

McArdle's argument is that repeated early success leaves one unprepared for life.  By contrast, learning to deal with failure early - by failing at low-consequence endeavours -  ensures that one is better equipped to deal with inevitable unexpected catastrophes that will crop up over the course of an 80 year life. This flies in the face of the traditional western middle class approach to child-rearing, namely that repeated success (academic, sporting, whatever) reinforces self-esteem and provides the best platform for success as an adult.  

I saw an interesting example of this recently whilst on a ski-ing holiday with my family. Towards the end of the week, there was a mini slalom race for all the kids in the ski school.  We all stood at the nursery slope and watched our children ski down the course, one-by-one.  What was noticeable amongst the predominantly upper-middle class English parents watching the race was the heightened sense of anxiety and incredible relief when their kids made it safely through, as though the consequences of falling over would have been catastrophic. The parents' fear of the effect of 'failure' on their kids was palpable, as though the children were highly-strung racehorses.  
From McArdle's point of view - which I completely agree with - the ideal outcome for all of the children in the race would have been to fall over, realize that the consequences of failure were not terminal, and then get up and continue ski-ing down. 

This healthy attitude to failure is something that I am increasingly trying to build into the education of my own kids. It is difficult because there is a clear conflict with a natural desire to control their environment and interfere to optimize all outcomes, which could very well have the effect of shielding them from experiencing failure.  

A great and thought-provoking book.

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