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The Up Side of Down Book Review

Up Side of Down

2.5 (2.5 out of 5)

Thomas J. Watson, famed leader of IBM during the first half of the twentieth century, once opined:

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.

This tidbit of wisdom is inherently fascinating. Not only is the assertion downright thought provoking, but the identity of the person making the assertion adds considerably to the context of the quote. In particular, one of last century's most successful businessmen offers advice, on the subject of being successful, and, most interestingly, the advice is completely counterintuitive. Most of us, understandably, associate achieving success with reducing, if not, minimizing or eradicating failure. Watson points out failure is an integral part of success and if we want to achieve success, we not only need to stop trying to avoid failure, but we must embrace it. Profound.

A similar idea is the fundamental premise behind Megan McArdle's book, The Up Side of Down -- Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success (Viking Adult, 2014). Having first been intrigued by Watson's quote some two decades ago, I was instantly interested when I came across McArdle's book. I felt the subject had the potential to be intensely interesting and also powerful in terms of offering new perspectives on thinking about and dealing with failure. Unfortunately, after having read the book, I must conclude that it does not live up to the potential I had originally envisioned. To be sure, there are some interesting parts, and McArdle has an impressive talent for writing. But ultimately, the book's flaws conspire to prevent it from being the book I had hoped it would be.

Part of the problem I had with The Up Side of Down is that it strayed too far from the expectation set by the book's title and summary. I was hoping for an objective, almost clinical treatment of the subject. But what McArdle has written is often a very personal examination of the premise. We learn about her worst date, her mother's near-death experience, her bout with unemployment, her house-buying adventures, etc. These are sometimes interesting anecdotes, and they are told well. But I was hoping for less in the way of personal anecdote and more in the form of data-driven rigorous analysis.

Another dimension of this "personal" treatment of the subject is the way in which McArdle's libertarian views influence her writing. Sometimes the influence is explicit, e.g. there are a fair number of arguments that go something like: conservatives say this, liberals say that, but what's really true is this other thing. Other times the influence is more subtle, manifesting itself through the examples which McArdle choses to use to illustrate her various points. While I'm not a libertarian, I don't have a problem with libertarian views. Rather, again, I had hoped for a take on the subject that was simply less influenced by politics.

Somewhat strangely, one of the later sections in the book provides a rather in-depth discussion of financial advisor and radio talk-show host Dave Ramsey. To be honest, the material felt like it could have been a paid advertisement (of course, it wasn't, it just felt that way). Ramsey is interesting enough and his story does indeed involve a nontrivial element of failure. However, when I started the book, I was not expecting to find an overview of Dave Ramsey's story and advice, nor was I particularly thrilled when I arrived at that part of the book.

So, if you especially like the above-described type of personal anecdotes or you consider yourself a kindred, libertarian spirit, you may well enjoy The Up Side of Down. If, on the other hand, you're more like me, you'd probably be better off spending your reading time elsewhere.

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