On failure

Many years ago, while browsing at Wordsworth Bookstore in Cambridge (long since shuttered, which gives you an idea of how many years ago) I came across The Education of a Speculator by Victor Niederhoffer. The book fascinated me in a horrifying kind of way because the author of this autobiography was so unbelievably, so nauseatingly arrogant. Harvard graduate, five-time U.S. champion squash player, absurdly wealthy Wall Street speculator. The hubris was so over the top that I wished bad things would happen to him.

Bad things did happen to him.

In 1997 Victor Niederhoffer had a spectacular fall from financial grace. The market turned against him and he was crushed. His business closed, he mortgaged his house and sold his antique silver collection. I cried tiny tears.

But really, this only made him more interesting. It certainly made him more sympathetic. Love him or hate him, this is a guy with some stories to tell. Over on Slate, Kathryn Schulz has interviewed him, and sure enough, he’s a great talker: Hoodoos, Hedge Funds, and Alibis: Victor Niederhoffer on Being Wrong.

It got me thinking about success, failure, and heroes. What does failure really teach us? We can admire the ones who make good decisions and prosper. But our heroes? Our heroes are the ones who make bad decisions and get away with it. For this we lionize them, not for their wisdom or their prowess but for their luck. For the fact that the gods smiled on them even as others were swallowed whole. This is the spark we long to touch. To be beautiful without effort. To sin and be loved.

In the end, life is just one damn thing after another, and we put our own purpose to the chaos, threading improbable stories through the wreckage. Pretending that causality is more than just the funny places where the holes line up and the sunlight filters through.

I’ve always had a distaste for the cautionary “don’t do what I did” tales of the penitent felon or the recovering drug-addled rock star. “Look here!” I want to say. “I’m reading your damn book because you did what you did.” But I am drawn to these lurid stories as much as the next person. It’s the nature of pornography. The rock star in remission says “Kids, don’t take the drugs that I took.” But he’s really saying, “Take these drugs and maybe you too will write a best-selling memoir!”

Mister, we paid you to take those drugs. You would have failed us not to brag about it. But please don’t be pious in your reform. Your contrition on the far side of debauchery is the song of a siren. It serves you, but it does not serve your audience. Guns always sell best after a massacre.