By Clarence Page

Nothing succeeds like success, but don't sell failure short.

That's the sunny-side-up view of life that appears to be busting out all over the big-thinking world of the business and economics press these days.

Bookstores, for example, offer new fail-friendly titles that all but invite you to fail. There's Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, by John C. Maxwell, Fail Better, by Herter Studio, and Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure, by talk show host Tavis Smiley. I have yet to find a book titled "Fail Down," but I would not rule it out.

The Harvard Business Review, normally a road map to the success track, recently devoted a special "failure issue" to articles with titles like "I Think of My Failures as a Gift" and "Managing Yourself: Can You Handle Failure?"

"Failure chic" is what commentator Rob Walker on public radio's "Marketplace" business program calls America's suddenly fashionable fascination with failure. Don't make too much of it, he warns. After all, sometimes a failure is just a failure. Failure can indeed lead to innovation, Walker suggests, but failure mostly is best avoided.

That's true, but in these times of bankruptcies, lay-offs, downsizing, offshoring and foreclosures, our failures have a lot to teach us about how we can pick ourselves up and ultimately succeed. That's the message in a groundbreaking "failure chic" books, "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure," by Tim Harford, a Financial Times columnist.

Harford, best known for his earlier big-seller The Undercover Economist, thinks big. Wars, poverty, innovation, climate change, the global financial crises and other big challenges have become too unpredictable for ready-made solutions and expert opinions, he argues. Instead, we must adapt. Most successful enterprises, he argues, are built through trial and error baby steps, not big planning, he says. We must not be afraid to improvise and take risks.

That, in a nutshell, expresses the basic "atta-boy"/ "atta-girl" pep-talk message of the "failure chic" books that I've seen. If I have saved you the trouble of buying and reading them all, you're welcome.

Frankly, the best expression of the winning-after-losing message that I've heard this year came from a guy who has high credibility on the subject of crushing setbacks: Conan O'Brien.

He famously achieved the dream of a comedian's lifetime dream when he was named host of "The Tonight Show" -- until Jay Leno decided to take the job back. O'Brien wound up hosting a new late-night show on TBS. In a hilarious, yet also poignant commencement speech at Dartmouth that has become a YouTube sensation, O'Brien speaks well of the lessons that the experience taught him.

"In 2000, I told graduates (at Harvard) don't be afraid to fail," Conan tells the grads. "Well, now I'm here to tell you that while you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it."

He also warned parents: "You will spend more money framing your child's diploma than they will earn in the next six months."

But in the end he waxes serious long enough to talk about the lessons he learned the hard way by failing to hang onto his lifelong dream of hosting "The Tonight Show" after he achieved it. As miserable as he felt, cast out into the wilderness of unemployment and "mid-priced chardonnay," it turned out to be "the most satisfying year of my life," he said.

He tried out new ideas and reinvented himself in ways that were more rewarding than he ever expected. "There are few things more liberating in this life," he said, "than having your worst fear realized."

In the end he learned that "it is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique," he says. "It's not easy. But if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for your profound reinvention."

True enough. Of course, it pains me to mention that Conan's move to TBS bumped George Lopez's talk show back to a later hour, unfortunately duplicating the situation that caused O'Brien to leave NBC. That's show biz.

But if Lopez is looking for a good book on how to recover from setbacks, I have several suggestions.


Available at Great on the Job


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