SYNOPSIS: American obsession with success blinds us to the lessons of failure.
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