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Bookworm: When failure has an ‘up side’

You were at work, but nothing was working.

Upside of DownYou knew there were problems with that big project, but you moved forward anyhow. Made contingency plans. Asked experts. You became obsessed.

But it didn’t work. and you failed. But does that make you a failure? No, says Megan McArdle in her new book “The Up Side of Down.” It doesn’t — especially if you failed correctly.

Your idea seemed like a good one at the time — until things went bad, your company lost money, and you lost face. So what did you learn?

Whatever it was, you never got that lesson from a classroom. McArdle says that most schools teach kids the basics, but there’s no instruction in how to deal with failure — even though that’s something that “should have been taught in kindergarten.”

But failure for a 5-year-old and failure of a multimillion-dollar project are obviously two different things. For a kid, it’s all about trying again. For an adult, knowing how to “fail well” helps get you unstuck and thinking smarter. It also helps you understand where you went wrong, so you can move on.

To understand how failure occurs, you need to know different levels of it, starting with “what failure is not: an accident.” Accidents are coincidences, and “the only thing you can do is accept that sometimes, things happen.” A mistake is a tiny failure, in which you probably could have “done something differently, but nothing really bad happens as a result.” Everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of them.

Full-out failure is “a mistake performing without a safety net. The fail-safes aren’t failing safely anymore.”

So how do we change the paradigm and embrace failure?

Cultivate a “culture of experimentation.” Avoid “sunk costs” that keep you stuck in a dangerous rut. Learn to recognize bad decisions early, and get yourself off the path that incubates them. Don’t “fall prey” to “groupidity.” Be consistent. Forgive yourself, and reject shame. Above all, remember that “failure is often the best — and sometimes the only — way to learn.”

Can’t show your face at work because of a colossal, career-threatening oops? Take comfort with stories from GM, Coke, Enron, NASA, and others in “The Up Side of Down.”

Indeed, by using those cautionary tales to illustrate how failure happens and what becomes of a company after it errs, McArdle helps put failure into perspective.

That might not make you feel better if you’ve committed a blunder, but McArdle’s wit and wicked humor serves to cajole her readers toward seeing things in a different light. Also helpful: McArdle tackles problems as diverse as unemployment and law-breaking, giving both the same kind of examination as she does with the business aspects of this book.

No matter when you blew it, if you’re still kicking yourself over your blunder, this book will show you how to move on and become a better person or employee from it. If you’ve ever erred, missing “The Up Side of Down” may be an even bigger mistake.

‘The Up Side of Down’

By Megan McArdle

Viking $27.95 299 pages