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Fear of Failure Is Dragging U.S. Down

Author: Peter R. Orszag, Adjunct Senior Fellow
March 4, 2014


American children are having fewer accidents than they once did, and our natural inclination is to cheer the news. The rate of "nonfatal fall injuries" among children ages 5 to 14, for example, declined by more 10 percent from 2001 to 2012. But if fewer childhood falls reflect increasing attempts to safety-proof life, the trend might not be the improvement it seems. Various indicators suggesting reduced dynamism in the U.S. economy can be viewed similarly; our inclination is to celebrate a reduction in job destruction rates, but should we?

Two excellent new books point out that failure has crucial benefits. In "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe," Mario Livio shows how scientific progress occurs when great thinkers take chances on new theories, some of which inevitably turn out to be wrong. While science may seem to move easily from one stunning insight to the next, the process is necessarily messier than that.

A similar theme pervades Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle's "The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success." McArdle argues that it would be nice "if we could serenely parade from triumph to triumph, but that is not how human beings work." We are caught in the trap of believing that success involves not failing, when failure is actually necessary to success. She urges us not to build injury-proof playgrounds -- which is what led me to look up those data on childhood accidents -- but instead bring back high monkey bars and "let kids learn that the price of reaching lofty heights is the occasional broken arm." Put McArdle in the category of doubting whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Action Plan for Child Injury Prevention is helping us as much as we might think.

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