No Time for Losers

SYNOPSIS: Americans ignore stories of failure at their own peril

Does anyone still remember the economic summit meeting that Bill Clinton convened in December 1992? Politically, it was another universe -- one in which the President-elect's personal hijinks were behind him, in which fundamental health-care reform was a vote-winner, in which Ira Magaziner was a genius and Newt Gingrich a comical figure. (Well, some things never change.) The central theme of the conference was the urgent need for America to get its act together to cope with powerful competition from other advanced countries -- above all, that economic juggernaut, Japan. And the heroes who were going to save us were the visionaries of high technology -- most prominent among them the lead speaker, John Sculley, the chief executive of Apple Computer.

But "sic transit gloria mundi" isn't my theme in this column. Instead, I want to point out a peculiarity in public attitudes toward business success and failure, both for countries and for companies. You see, as far as the buyers of business books are concerned, not only John Sculley but also Apple itself has more or less disappeared from view. And, despite the occasional headline about the plunging yen, so has Japan. Americans, it seems, are fascinated by success stories but have little appetite for tales of failure. The disappearance of Japan is even more astonishing than the disappearance of Apple. In 1992, Lester Thurow's "Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, America and Europe," spent months on The New York Times best-seller list. Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun" -- a fictional account of imminent Japanese takeover that included an earnest afterword explaining that it was all based on solid research -- not only ruled the bookstores for months but was snapped up and made into a movie. In those years, you couldn't walk into an airport bookstore without confronting rank upon rank of books with samurai warriors and ideograms on their covers.

Then Japan stumbled, and everyone lost interest. The last time I saw a book about that country on display, it was a shopworn copy of Eamonn Fingleton's 1995 "Blindside," which claimed that thanks to the then ever-rising yen, Japan's economic dominance was still growing and its apparent recession was only a ruse intended to lull Westerners into complacency. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) I guess they forgot to take it off the shelf.

America's business-book buyers, in short, have no time for losers. As putatively successful investors, the Beardstown Ladies sold more than a million of their investment guides. For all I know, someone is writing their true story right now -- but if I were a publisher, I wouldn't pay much of an advance.

What's funny is that when it comes to general nonfiction, Americans love a good disaster, whether tales of drowned sailors or doomed mountain climbers. Why is it that when it comes to business, we're only interested in success?

One possible answer is that we rely too heavily on sports metaphors. If you think you could be a contender, you want to know about the strengths and weaknesses of your rivals; you want to know the secrets of others' success. You don't have time to listen to stories about teams that haven't a prayer of making it to the post-season.

Another answer is that people may feel, probably unconsciously, that too much emotional depth gets in the way of a business career. An ironic attitude or a tragic sense of life may make you a more interesting person. But it might also undermine the positive outlook you need to be a successful executive or entrepreneur.

Still, the business reader who wants to hear only about the positive is missing a lot. When you come down to it, business isn't much like sports. Every touchdown in football is achieved at a rival's expense; but while a business may have a few major competitors, most of the time an extra dollar in profits is earned not by taking business from a rival, but by creating value where none existed before. This is even more true of nations. Most economists will tell you that the whole idea of national "competitiveness" is a fallacy, that world trade is not a zero-sum game. And, conversely, when a business or a country stumbles and falls, usually the culprit is not a superior rival but the victim's own mistakes. The enemy is indeed usually us.

That's why it is important to understand how success turns to failure -- because next time it could be you. Surely, any entrepreneur with a potentially winning technology has a lot to learn from Apple's missteps. Here was a company with a massive technological lead -- friends who used to use Macs say the slogan "Windows 95 is Macintosh 89" was right on the mark -- that somehow blew it. Wouldn't you like to avoid repeating that sort of history?

And while a lot of Americans used to be frightened by Japanese success, I am much more frightened by their current malaise. Here is a modern, advanced nation with a stable government and no foreign debt to speak of -- yet the Japanese seem to have lost control of their economy, and to be sliding into the kind of slump we haven't seen since the 1930's. I think we'd better figure out what's happening to them and why; otherwise, who's to say it can't happen to us?

Many people have said that America's worship of success hurts our souls, because we care only about getting ahead. I have no expertise in such matters. But I am sure that our unwillingness to hear about anything but success makes us especially vulnerable to the failure we fear.

Originally published in The New York Times, 7.26.98