Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ode to the Monument of Failure

One of our collaborators, the author and journalist Oliver Burkeman, explores the counter-intuitive notion of a negative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty. The following is an excerpt from his 2013 book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

"In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity's shattered dreams. It doesn't look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you're seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won't find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.
This is consumer capitalism's graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it's almost certainly the only place on the planet where you'll find Clairol's A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette's equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum is home to discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; to TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; to self-heating soup cans that had a regrettable tendency to explode in customers' faces; and to packets of breath mints that had to be withdrawn from sale because they looked like the tiny packages of crack cocaine dispensed by America's street drug dealers. It is where microwaveable scrambled eggs – pre-scrambled and sold in a cardboard tube with a pop-
up mechanism for easier consumption in the car – go to die.

The Museum of Failed Products was itself a kind of accident, albeit a happier one. Its creator, a now-retired marketing man named Robert McMath, merely intended to accumulate a "reference library" of consumer products, not failures per se. And so, starting in the 1960s, he began purchasing and preserving a sample of every new item he could find. Soon, the collection outgrew his office in upstate New York and he was forced to move into a converted granary to accommodate it; later, GfK bought him out, moving the whole lot to Michigan. What McMath hadn't taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: "Most products fail." According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.
By far the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that it should exist as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection – a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid making errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives who arrive every week at Sherry's door are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for success – so unwilling to invest time or energy thinking about their industry's past failures – that they only belatedly realise how much they need to access GfK's collection. Most surprising of all is that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum have come there to examine – or been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created, then abandoned. They were apparently so averse to dwelling on the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters."

This piece raises issues that we plan to explore in the Hub. A failure may seem just that until you reframe and repackage it, in this case by making a collection of consumer flops, resulting in a novel, useful and successful project - the Museum of Failed Products.

Human failures of mind, body and circumstance, such as mental health problems, physical illness, and relationship breakdown can also be harnessed positively. Artists regularly draw on trauma and distress creatively, resulting in inspirational and aesthetically stimulating works of art. An exhibition of light boxes in East London is testament to this. Letting in the Light showcases the work of 35 artists, all of whom have experienced mental health issues. Located in a neglected section of fast-regenerating Stratford, an area marked for ambitious growth post 2012, the work illuminates a strip of the High St that includes ubiquitous betting, fried chicken and pound shops.
Letting in the Light. Image: Andrew Whittuck (c) 

The most recent project by Bobby Baker's Daily Life Ltd, at first glance Letting in the Light appears simply a pop-up exhibition of interesting and colourful artwork, until you read the text accompanying each piece, for example:
'In recovering from the depths of depression, I experienced 
a spontaneous outpouring of creativity, resulting in over 3000 abstract digital paintings to date'.

'This piece symbolises that there is a way out of the depth of despair into the world above, where there is light and hope'.
Oliver's piece is also a reminder that by focussing on the future and obsessing on past successes or failures, we neglect the present. This is surely a reason for the surge in popularity of mindfulness-promoting activities such as adult colouring-in and meditation.

The huge potential of complex and often messy human experience, socially constructed as success or failure, lies at the heart of what our project will explore. I declare our intention to build a monument to failure - by learning from what works.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

If, on the other hand... A proposal for a performance piece from Curious

One of our proposed collaborators, Helen Paris, from Curious, has been thinking about the performance piece they might produce. One area Helen and I have been talking about is the experience of failure and the implications of failing. She writes:

‘If, on the other hand...’
Over 45 minutes and 45 seconds a woman in her mid forties slowly falls down sideways from vertical to horizontal over an angle of 45 degrees. As she falls she delivers a litany of missed chances, wrong paths taken, choices she could have made, should have made, which if she had made might have made things better, might have made her just a bit more successful. 

If, on the other hand
I hadn’t said yes to the
Decided not to have had the
Missed the first one and got the 1.15 instead I
Turned down the offer of the
Said yes I did fancy just one more soupcon of
Cancelled the
Brought an entirely different set of 
Thought: to hell with this! I jolly well WILL take…

What makes a successful show? What makes a successful life? Choreographer Doris Humphreys describes how the modern dancer should always inhabit the ‘arc between two deaths’ - the moment of falling, between standing still and lying down. From the slip on the banana skin to the fall from grace, falling is often seen as failing. The possibility of failure is always present in the encounter with liveness.

Oh! the unswervering fidelity of live performance to life.

In the end, whatever decisions made, paths taken there is just this.

This very moment, with you. Here. Now. Then gone.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Causal Illusions and Success

Helena Matute
Today the Imperfect Cognitions blog has published an interview by Anneli Jefferson with Helena Matute who has been working on causal illusions and illusions of control.

Here is an extract, particularly relevant to the question whether some illusions lead to success:

AJ: In your work, you point to negative consequences of seeing cause-effect relations where there are none, as for example when this leads people to uncritically believing in unscientific forms of medicine such as homeopathy. Do you think causal illusions have predominantly negative effects? Can they also be ‘positive illusions’, to borrow Taylor’s famous phrase?
HM: Oh, they surely have positive consequences as well. Otherwise they would have not been retained to this day. This is a trend that evolution has favored, which means that those individuals who in the early times developed the illusion that they were controlling their environment had an evolutionary advantage. They were probably more active and more persistent in their attempts to survive and so were more successful. 
Those who believed that they had no control over their environment quite possibly reduced their motivation to act, and their actual chances to survive, as in learned helplessness phenomena. When Overmier, Seligman and Maier first described learned helplessness effects in 1967 they found their dogs had lost their motivation to initiate voluntary responses after exposure to uncontrollable events. If believing (or realizing) that you have no control leads you to feel depressed, passive, and unresponsive, then a lack of causal illusion in those cases can be quite damaging. So, yes, causal illusions do have a positive side in many real life situations, but today there are also many situations in which illusory beliefs can be quite damaging. For instance, it might have been positive to believe that an innocuous herb could heal you in the times when no scientific medicine existed. However, maintaining such beliefs at present may have disastrous consequences. 
To conclude, it is important to keep in mind that we cannot spend our life looking for biases, illusions and errors all the time, so we should be aware that we will suffer from some degree of illusory perception of causality from time to time. Thus, what I believe that what we should do is (1) be aware that we are all victims of these illusions, so we will be ready to detect them when they occur, and (2) recognize those situations in which causal illusions would have negative consequences for us and for those we love, as it is in those cases that we need to be particularly vigilant to detect and combat them. In other cases, just forget or make fun of your superstitions and illusions.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Drive to Succeed and Young People's Mental Health

Jasmine Parker - Wellcome Images
Today Vicki Abeles on the New York Times reports on a new study by Stuart Slavin showing that one in three young people in the States experience anxiety or depression due to school-related stress.

This does not apply only to teenagers, but to children aged 5 to 7 as well. The article suggests that the drive to succeed creates stress, and paradoxically undermines academic success.