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The History of Failure
The End of Failure was written for those who are struggling with debt. So it has its emphasis on money. But the same basic principles can be applied to most every part of life. So let’s get started by looking at how failure got to be an important part of modern life and why it became a self-fulfilling identity. Financial failure has been around forever and the punishment has been harsh. The Greeks and Romans condemned debtors to slavery. In America putting debtors in prison was a common form of debt collection from Colonial times (based upon British law) until about 1850. In addition to prison debtors could be subjected to branding (with the letter W for worthless), torture, and public humiliation.
For all the scorn a debtor might endure debt was still thought of as failure in the physical world and was not as serious as a fall from grace. Not paying your debts did have moral implications but money accumulation and management were skills that did not impact your moral standing within the community. Failure was thought of as something that you had, an incident. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century this started to change.
Failure as an Identity
Prior to the mid nineteenth century business was conducted in localized communities, in established business circles and through letters of introduction. But businesses started to expand in size and number. This led to the need for doing business in unfamiliar areas with unfamiliar people. And the need for third party verification of a businessman’s credibility, thus the credit bureaus were born.
The initial goals of credit bureaus were not only to provide an accurate accounting of a businessman’s financial situation but to make a moral judgment on his character. Since early reporting lacked numerical characterization they relied on colorful commentaries. Phrases like, "be sure & never trust him, will always be worthless," or "there is a strong possibility of his failure," related a person's business worthiness. But not stopping there the reports often challenged the character of the businessman. Reporting, "…don’t think he will succeed, he is unpopular. He is rather of an unhappy disposition," allowed the fixation of moral blame upon a potential failure.
These credit reports helped create a new lexicon for failure. Terms for failure included: busted, flat broke, dead broke, hard pushed, up a tree, hand to mouth, hard up, hard rum, face the music, go through the mill, wind up, wipe out, peter out, flunk out, fizzle out, and go to smash.
People began to be identified as their credit report. This led to failure changing from an event into an identity. By the end of the century failure was no longer something that you had but something you were.
Both the country and the business community were growing so quickly that failure took on yet another new definition. Just standing still, just getting by, was no longer enough. Taking risks to expand ones financial standing was no longer just an opportunity it was an obligation. Those who were content with the status quo earned a special status in the credit bureaus. They were put on the “sinking list.” But the expansion of failure did not stop there. By 1890 failure was a broad category of identity not simply the financial ruin of an entrepreneur, it meant as much dissatisfaction as disaster.
By the end of 1890 failure as an identity was so widespread that at the Chicago Tribune asked its readers, “To what to you attribute your failure?” The response was enormous.
Success is like Baseball
Success is like baseball. For those who are not baseball fans the statistics here may be unfamiliar. It’s not necessary to understand the game to understand how the statistics apply to failure. If you’re a big baseball fan the numbers will be very familiar but seeing them in a new light will help free you from chocking at the financial plate. Our financial system encourages, even demands risk taking. Some people succeed, some fail miserably but most wind up in the middle. While good habits and thoughtful management are usually components of success they do not guarantee it. In fact sometimes they are completely absent in success. So how does this relate to baseball?
A baseball player who bats .250, assuming he’s a good fielder, will make the team and play on a regular basis. He won’t be an all-star but he’ll play and do very well financially. Be definition hitting .250 means he hits safely in only one out of every four attempts. He fails three-fourths of the time.
A baseball player who bats .300 will be an all-star. He’ll make ten times what the .250 hitter makes. And he’ll be able to parlay his on-field success into other money making ventures like, endorsements or broadcasting.
A .250 hitter hits safely 5 out of every 20 times he bats. A .300 hitter hits safely 6 times out of every 20 attempts. One extra hit in every twenty attempts earns him at least ten times the money of his teammate.
A baseball player who bats .333 will be a super-star and wind up in the Hall of Fame. He’ll earn 25 times the .250 hitter and will be able to earn substantial income from endorsements, personal appearances and autographs for the rest of his life.
A .333 hitter will only be successful one more time in every thirty-three attempts than the .300 hitter but he will reap a world of extra benefits.
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