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Views: Malcolm Gladwell On Failure, Voice, & Exit

image from upload.wikimedia.orgWill it work, that thing you're putting so much time and hope and energy into?  

You have no idea.  

It might work -- but it probably won't.  

And in the long run, it -- that class, or program, or app, or reform -- might work out better if you fail miserably in the short run.  

These are some of the many thought-provoking ideas in Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker article about economist Albert Hirschman (The Power of Failure).

The piece tells about how Hirschman became fascinated by large-scale mishaps that worked out really well in the end -- entirely unexpectedly.  

Longtime readers of this site know that I'm fascinated and horrified by failure (my own and others').  

The idea that failure can turn into success is lovely -- as is the idea that many failures stem from the belief that the task "looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be."  

Sound familiar, reformers current and old-school?  

But that's not all.  The Gladwell article ends with a discussion of Hirschman's views on private school vouchers, about which he differed starkly with Milton Friedman.  

Friedman thought that the most obvious and powerful action a parent could take in response to a failing school was to leave it -- for a better private school.  But that was the economist's bias against voice, according to Hirschman:

Friedman considers withdrawal or exit as the “direct” way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization. A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them!

Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to “cumbrous political channels.” But what else is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels?

In a piece he wrote, titled Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Hirschman said he thought that the most powerful option was to stay, and make noise about needing change -- and that exiting "failed to send a useful message to underperformers. Weren’t there cases where monopolists were relieved when their critics left?

Those who hold power in the lazy monopoly may actually have an interest in creating some limited opportunities for exit on the part of those whose voice might be uncomfortable.

Indeed, according to Gladwell, "The worst thing that ever happened to incompetent public-school districts was the growth of private schools: they siphoned off the kind of parents who would otherwise have agitated more strongly for reform." (This reminds me of the "ban private education" fantasy scenario from a couple of years ago.)

Image via Wikimedia Commons


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"Incompetent public school districts" being a euphemism for "school districts where my child would have to sit next to undesirable classmates." Those parents are not fleeing high-income districts where all their kids' classmates would be privileged.

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