Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Forbes Week #1: Looking Failure in the Face

Statue of Dante, Florence, Italy
       Anyone who writes a book wants it to echo. And while my books are certainly not reverberating around the world and over the decades, they do vibrate quietly at certain times in certain places. A dozen years after it was published, "Complete and Utter Failure" stuck in the mind of an editor at Forbes, enough that he would ask me to write something on the topic, which was enjoying one of its periodic revivals in interest. I think that the opening sentence was inspired by the novelty of writing for a business magazine—this was posted  in the online edition March 2, 2007, and later ran in the print magazine itself, which pleased me greatly, since in that far off era it meant they paid me a second time.
    Dante Alighieri had a very bad fiscal 1302. His mission to Pope Boniface VIII ended in a betrayal, political rivals burned down his home in Florence and he was forced to flee into exile and condemned to die if he returned, accused of the rather ordinary and unpoetic crime of skimming money off municipal road repairs in his capacity as superintendent of widening and straightening roads, one of the many mundane duties the poet performed for his beloved native city.
     But Dante made the best of it. While scrounging his living, he began writing Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, inventing a fiery Hell and meticulously placing his enemies--including Boniface--one by one into it. The public embraced his creation. Dante was celebrated, both in his lifetime and without pause for the next 700 years, lauded as one of most important writers of the modern world, a titan alongside Shakespeare and Cervantes.
     All in all, a fair recovery.
     We all fall down in our lives at one point or another. Some stay down; others get back up. Failure is such a common human experience that it is difficult to find a general observation about it that doesn't sound trite, like something off a high-school locker room wall. "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." And on and on.
     Despite all the truisms about failure, and despite it being universal, we still tend to ignore failure. We leave the disappointments off our resumes, and we overlook them in the lives of others.
     How many people, watching Steve Jobs announce the iPhone, the latest hot product from computer giant Apple , paused to remember that he was once a notorious has-been? 
That in 1985 Jobs was forced out of the company he co-founded before blowing $100 million on NeXT, a start-up computer company that arrived stillborn?
     Not many. Because success eclipses failure. We think of George Lucas as the creator of Star Wars, not the guy who produced Howard the Duck. When we see Dustin Hoffman chatting with David Letterman, he is the star of The Graduate and Tootsie, not the star of Ishtar, one of the biggest bombs ever made.

To continue reading, click here.


  1. A good thing for me to read today -- most days, to be honest -- and I thank you for it.

  2. George Ryan never cared about whether the death penalty was right or wrong. He was desperate to not get indicted & convicted for all the corruption he allowed as Illinois Secretary of State regarding commercial driver's licenses!
    It was the people he specifically put in charge of that division that took the bribe that resulted in an incompetent & illiterate man driving a defective truck that crashed into a minivan & killed the six Willis children.
    That caused the feds to start their investigation which led to Ryan's conviction.
    In addition, his patron & mentor Jim Thompson, is believed to have spent on Ryan's defense, as much as $30 million of his law firm's money trying to keep Ryan out of jail.
    Of course, Thompson was as corrupt as Ryan, he just never got indicted, even though he was on the executive committee of Hollinger, when Conrad Black & David Radler looted the Sun-Times of millions!
    Big Jim just looked the other way!

    1. There was no car/truck collision. A bulky piece of improperly secured metal fell off the truck onto the roadway. The mini-van ran over it and in the process it pierced their gas tank and the sparks ignited the fuel.

    2. So I remembered one thing wrong.
      It doesn't negate the fact that Ryan was a corrupt asshole & was ultimately responsible for the deaths!
      He went after the death penalty solely for his own rotten, cynical reason, to stay out of jail, as he & his buddies thought if they could convince the Norwegian Nobel Committee to give Ryan the Peace Prize, the feds wouldn't dare to indict him, let alone convict him.
      He was wrong on all counts!

  3. Neil’s book “Complete and Utter Failure” is a favorite of mine; it never loses its ability to reinforce how failing at something can be a motivation and not a defining moment.

  4. I recall wearing Corfam shoes with my Navy blues. Didn't have to spend time polishing them, but they were hot in summer. I believe artificial leather shoes are still part of the uniform, but the brand name Corfam has disappeared.

    How to market sanitary napkins without offending tender sensitivities was an early challenge. KOTEX was originally sold in "stores that cater to women," but became a mass market item when it was included in the Montgomery Ward catalogue. The sensitivity issue was handled masterfully by Johnson and Johnson beginning in the 1940's in a campaign of print adds that featured elegantly gowned women and no text except the slogan "Modess...because."


    1. After a few years, DuPont sold Corfam to the Polish government in1971. I have no idea what happened after that, as all the online articles I saw say nothing about it after DuPont pulled the plug.
      I just remember that from a decades old news article.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.