The stories on this site are meant to build perspective around those who don’t finish first, to help establish a psychological lens that can be slid into place when the next dominant brand or world record-shattering hero comes crashing across the scene. When that time comes, if you take a few moments to consider the ten, or ten thousand, aspirants standing just beneath the new colossus, the work of this site is done.
With that lens in mind, here are a few observations about the relationship between success and failure that I’ve made after poring over stories of also-rans for the past year. I’ll give the short version first and then elaborate on each one following the list.
- While we require canons to help filter the world, they always result in a disproportionate perceived value between those within and those without.
- Most major advances in science are unfairly ascribed to one or two individuals, ignoring the community of thinkers who are typically critical to breakthrough innovations and discoveries.
- In technological standards battles, greater adoption always trumps superior technology.
- Revisionism − however well-deserved − is never more than partial. Which is to say: once an also-ran, always an also-ran.
- In sports, “failure in the clutch” is often a perfectly fine description of events, but when used to describe psychology or character, it is near meaningless.
While we require canons to help filter the world, they always result in a disproportionate perceived value between those within and those without.
We talk about canons mainly with regard to The Arts, but the concept applies equally well to other domains. Canons are critical in determining why and how second-class citizenship is conferred and, more importantly, why it is so hard to overcome.
A canon is fundamentally a set (of people, ideas, works, etc.) deemed to represent the very best among a larger set. Who decides what is to be included in the canon? Generally speaking, “the experts” do. In the Arts, the experts are critics and art historians. In Science, they are trained researchers and specialists. In Sports, the canon is predominantly established by results, but gray areas such as Hall of Fame selections and characterizations of “legacies” are managed by a robust cadre of journalists and pundits. In Politics and History, we find professionals, pundits, journalists, critics and historians all weighing in. And while it’s not exactly common to talk of canons in Business, it’s valid to look at “the market” as a body of experts and every purchase as a vote for inclusion.
In an information-dense world, canons are useful filters. Even the most critically minded of us cannot hope to understand the nuances of the very many competitions that occur, daily, yearly, generationally, for cultural currency or market share, all around us in the world at large. Canons help us to understand the sprawling past and to decide what to buy next, whether we are buying a product or an idea.
And who likes to make buying decisions? I don’t. When I am wading into an area that I know little about, I welcome the filters that allow me to ignore the vast majority of the contenders for my time, attention, and dollars. If the competition can be boiled down to a few choices, great. If it can be settled altogether, with one clear winner, that’s even better.
But the side effect of a canonical filter is that it transforms a spectrum of value into a categorical either/or. Think of it as analog vs. digital. In an analog world, a world without canons, there is still an order of rank from highest to lowest but there is no firm line delineating the very best. In this world, the relationship between any two components is some finite value on the scale. In a digital world, the relationship between elements inside the canon and outside is infinite, the difference between one and zero, something vs. nothing.
By making those within seem infinitely superior to those without, canons distort reality.
Most major advances in science are unfairly ascribed to one or two individuals, ignoring the community of thinkers who are typically critical to breakthrough innovations and discoveries.
In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, the technology writer Steven Johnson identifies certain patterns that underlie creative achievements. Among them are: vibrant networks of people and ideas; long maturation processes where “slow hunches” can develop and deepen; serendipity; and the importance of platforms. His arguments, which I find compelling, tend to dispel the myth of the lone genius in creative breakthroughs and make the case for the importance of the collaborative ecosystem.
It’s hard to pin a medal on an ecosystem, however, or to name a discovery after one. So, inevitably, our inclination toward individual recognition and reward, not to mention romance, impels us to focus on the limited few who seem most important to the breakthrough. Usually, that’s the person who got there first or who trumpeted their achievement the loudest. Or both.
Lost in the shuffle? Every other member of the ecosystem.
In technological standards battles, greater adoption always trumps superior technology.
This point is not terribly controversial and perhaps not terribly enlightening, but it’s useful to keep in mind. If the innovators working in today’s technology labs are not keeping it in mind, the venture funders and private equity firms backing them sure as hell are. It’s part of what drives the crazy-high valuations for platforms whose popularity suggest they can dominate a sector even if the tools are not the most advanced or the business lacks a sustainable (or any) revenue model.
We like to think of our culture as being a meritocracy, where the best ideas win out. That may be generally true, but there are counterforces that complicate the situation. When considering technology standards, the more apt metaphor is not the marketplace of ideas but rather the march of civilization. The march of civilization is rapid, impatient, and perfectly satisfied with imperfection. The forward momentum that drives humanity is too relentless, the hunger for new ideas and products too voracious, to dawdle over the finer points.
When it comes to improving our way of life (generally understood as making it more convenient or more entertaining) the perfect is never allowed to be the enemy of the good, especially if we have to wait for it.
Revisionism − however well-deserved − is never more than partial. Which is to say: once an also-ran, always an also-ran.
Recall the canon. If there’s one thing that experts dislike more than being wrong, it’s admitting it. This phenomenon alone is enough to ensure that any person (idea, product, etc.) outside the canon is unlikely to gain entry after the matter is settled. In an analog world, on a sliding scale, a reevaluation might result in an elevation in status by adding a few points. But in a digital world, reevaluations must not only add a few points but fundamentally recast the original assessment, bumping the contender from one quantum state (out) to another (in).
Most people don’t have the time or the stomach for that, and experts in particular (remember, when it comes to the market, we are the experts) don’t have the humility for it either.
In sports, “failure in the clutch” is often a perfectly fine description of events, but when used to describe psychology or character, it is near meaningless.
One of the key appeals of sport is that achievements are made at the intersection of the mental and the physical. As spectators, we assume that physically we are not in the same league as those we watch, and consequently we are more likely to relate to sportsmen on the mental level. When we watch an event unfold, it is possible for us to project our thoughts into the moment, to divine the psychology of the contenders and to conjure a sense for how we might react in the same situation. In fact, it’s impossible not to do this.
The great glory in that projection is the shared elation we get when our champions succeed. We are there on the field, cheers and confetti raining down. The great danger in that projection is that it’s not real, and it can seduce us into thinking we know what’s going on in someone else’s head when we really don’t.