(Book Review) The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success


I read a prerelease copy of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success from Viking Adult.

McArdle writes well but the structure and pacing of this book was uneven. Twice during reading I double checked the title of the book to make sure I hadn’t made some mistake about what the book’s title was. Some chapters go too deep into singular, and not quite interesting enough, examples in a style that had a certain self-centeredness about them, as if they thought they were the star of their own show. I simply asked myself as a reader “where is this going and why are we still talking about this 10 pages later?” too often.

I wasn’t surprised to learn in the acknowledgements that the balance of the book was based on writings previously published for The Atlantic and other magazines. This is not a ding about reusing work, as I don’t care where the pages are born from provided the book works as a coherent whole, or is described as a collection, and neither was the case. There are also many political (Russia, America) and economic failure examples (debt, taxation, regulation, conservatives/liberals), which in retrospect fits McArdles wheelhouse as a journalist, but not my interests as a general audience reader interested in failure (which is what the title suggests is who the book is for).

On the positive side there are pockets of solid storytelling and useful commentary on rethinking failure here, it’s just not consistently delivered and compared to the many excellent books for the general reader already published on rethinking our assumptions about failure (see list below) I can’t justify recommending this book and its narrative wanderings, unless you’re a fan of McArdle’s writing (in which case you may have read some of this before) or you have a primary interest in failure in economics and economic policy.

She does correctly nail certain nuances often overlooked. She observes how we reward pundits for hyperbole rather than accuracy in prediction (A point Nate Silver’s Signal and The Noise also emphasized), and the unavoidable failures of faith in testing of any kind (See Dangers of  Faith of Data). She captures how much randomness there is in why things fail or succeed (The films Waterworld vs. Titanic is one example) and points out how the Mona Lisa only rose in popularity after it was stolen (and returned), which has nothing to do with the quality of the painting itself. These points are well made and insightful.

And she explores a standard roster of studies from academia like The Stanford Marshmellow test on self control and the Peter Skillman Spaghetti bridge challenge (which coincidentally also involves a marshmallow) that showed how kindergarden children outperformed adults in a design challenge simply because they were the most willing to fail fast and learn from it.  She also references Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed vs. Growth mindsets which is a concept rising fast in the corporate world as the latest panacea (for those wanting to replace their obsession with Myers-Briggs). Cognitive Bias, one of my favorite subjects, gets coverage too. Had these themes been more central to the book it would have faithfully lived up to the title, been a better read and easier to recommend.

Here’s my short list of related books I’d recommend:

  • Being Wrong Adventures in The Margins of Error, Kathryn Schulz: This is probably the layperson oriented book about how to look at failure differently that you’re looking for, covering most of the bases of stigma of failure, mental models, while keeping the focus on individuals, and ordinary life situations.
  • To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Petroski: If you’re an engineer or builder of any kind this book is for you. It’s a short book with case study exploration of several different famous failures (Tacoma Narrows bridge, Challenger space shuttle, etc.).  There’s limited analysis of how to prevent failure, but the message of how we primarily learn from failure is made clear.
  • The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dörne – If you are a manager or leader Dörne focuses on how data can lead you to the wrong conclusions. It’s not the most entertaining book but it’s one of the deepest for understanding the nuances of how what appears to be reasoned decision making based on data can set you up to fail.
  • You are Not So Smart, McRaney: The best single book on Cognitive Bias. It’s a series of short articles, each covering a different bias. It doesn’t go into how to overcome them, and he can be loose with the references and supporting arguments, but since Cognitive Bias has a huge role in why we fail understanding them is a great place to start.
  • Deep Survival, Gonzales: an examination of who survives in disasters and dangerous situations. It’s not specifically about failure, but about how we handle crisis, and what habits and patterns of thinking matter, or can get you killed. McArdle briefly, and positively, mentions it in the Up Side of Down.

7 Responses to “(Book Review) The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success”

  1. Sarah A Chauncey

    Wonder if Confirmation Bias should also be considered .. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias — I did not read the following, but they are of interest and on my to read list, any thoughts? — How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

    1. Scott

      Hi Sarah. Confirmation bias is one kind of Cognitive Bias. It’s covered in You Are Not So Smart, but the wikipedia pages on these subjects is good.

      I’m not familiar with any of those books unfortunately.

      Surviorship bias is important to understand, as many books that claim to be about failure make flawed assumptions but what other people can learn from specific failures.

      1. Sarah A Chauncey

        Thank you. Received my copy of A Year Without Pants last week and looking forward to reading.

  2. theresa neil

    I would highly recommend reading Victor Lombardi’s “Why We Fail” by Rosenfeld Media. It is specific to software, but a great read for anyone in the IT industry.

    1. Scott

      Hi Theresa: I’ve read it. In fact I’m mentioned in the book for giving feedback on an early draft :)

  3. Mike Nitabach

    McCardle is an ignorant stupid fuckwit, and it is shameful to mention her name anywhere in the vicinity of Petroski, who is a true visionary thinker.



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