Studying Failure Through Sports and Market Research

By Mark Kingwell, PhD

It’s easy to make the simple phrase, “fail better,” from Samuel Beckett[1] into a corporate mantra. I am a little skeptical about that move, since it obscures the complexity of the idea. It’s like those signs you see in some workplaces: Think; Make Ideas Happen; Get It Done; Team Over Talent; Everything You Need is Already Inside; It’s About Progress, Not Perfection; etc.  Empty slogans when repeated without context or depth. Beckett is of course suggesting that we learn from our mistakes, but, not surprisingly, his point is existential. We cannot fully evade failure; we certainly cannot conquer it. Therefore, in art, as in life and business, dealing with failure is a steep, sometimes potentially demoralizing, daily reality.

Baseball is the Best Teacher of Failure

Baseball has much to teach us about this dimension of life and effort. But one thing baseball teaches that is directly relevant to marketing research is how you can lie, or mislead yourself, with statistics. Everyone knows how devoted to numbers baseball people are, and the “Moneyball” approach to the game has become a touchstone. But a given stat is just a metric driven by a pre-decided result: it can only measure the one thing it is designed to measure. Interpretation is quite a different prospect, especially the apparent hardness of numbers and, even more so, their comparability or scale. We say, “Well, Player X had higher OPS or batting average or slugging percentage than Player Y, so he should be our first choice.” But even the smartest interpretation of the most revealing statistic is going to be subject to the vagaries of contingency, change over time, and a few other things that we can’t control but wish we could. The worst thing about numbers is really a version of what philosophers call the problem of induction – namely, the assumption that future events will reliably resemble past ones. Don’t make the error of every Thanksgiving turkey!

How Canadian is Failure?

Some clichés of Canadian culture would suggest that we embrace failure too easily. The critic Anthony Wilden, for example, noted that in the United States people say, “You can’t win ’em all,” whereas in Canada, we say, “You can’t win”[2]. But I don’t really buy this argument. Generalizations about national culture are always a bit flimsy. Still, Canadians are less showy about success and failure, and have lots of grittiness and endurance.

Canadian baseball has always taken a backseat to hockey and maybe other sports. But Canadians having always loved baseball and  playing it in organized and enthusiastic ways since the 19th century, reflect on its meanings as much as, though with different inflection than, the pastoral musings that tend to dominate American baseball writing. Canada has produced players of genius over the years. Today, I think anyone would acknowledge that Joey Votto, from Toronto, is one of the best players in the game.

Fan Experience Elevates the Game

I’m of those fans who find the Major League game way too loud and insistent, especially at certain parks, where all the music and hoopla between innings seems to make the game itself not exciting enough, or too slow. The slowness is the point! Baseball is a meditative game broken open by moments of tremendous action. It is not meant to be a spectacle, but a pastime. This is one reason old-school fans appreciate minor-league so much – plus the beer is cheaper.

Some marketers are better at listening to what fans want. That’s why there’s such a huge variation between different stadium vibes. Seattle has the best food because it’s regional as well as traditional, and a stadium that is both covered and open to the weather – genius for a rainy but temperate city. Arlington and Camden Yards went for the old-fashioned aesthetic, with red brick and pennants. Wrigley and Fenway are so iconic that you accept a mediocre hot dog and dingy restrooms as prerogative; actually, I’ll take any hot dog at the game. As Humphrey Bogart famously said, “A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Lastly, a design improvement that doesn’t need a survey to support it: more restrooms!

But the Texas and Baltimore stadiums raise a point, where the biggest driver in baseball marketing—outside of the fan experience—is nostalgia. I suppose this is inevitable, but with the changing face of the game, the rising international and multi-ethnic profile, I’d like to see more of an innovation-within-tradition approach. Players like Jose Bautista or Ichiro Suzuki are the gold standard here: doing things a bit differently, the one very demonstrative and the other preternaturally calm. They have offered new perspectives on what it means to be excellent, and have shaped baseball’s long narrative.

The Relationship Between Error and Failure

One of the interesting paradoxes of failure is that some roles, tasks or professions do not allow room for error or even failure. So while seven failures out of ten tries is probably great for hitters in baseball, this figure certainly won’t apply to fielders or pitchers. A .300 batting average would indeed by enviable, but a fielder who got even one error every game would be unlikely to make his or her high school team. Pitchers, like teams, ought to have a winning percentage well above .500 if they are going to contend.

So failure is relative to position, and a lot of it is beyond your control. Baseball is fascinating to me because it is a team game played by isolated individuals. There’s no real body contact. And yet success depends on a great deal of elegant coordination. There’s also a lot of credit and blame to deal with. Did that error in the field just cost me my win? Was that a passed ball or a wild pitch? Hit or error? It all matters, and it is all noted down in the official record.

The magic statistic at the moment is WAR – wins above replacement – which tries to measure the value of a player to his team. This number gathers six metrics into one bottom-line number; but it’s still always a mistake to place too much faith in numbers!

Failing Better is Not About Success

While the phrase “thought leader” is stupid and should be retired from usage as soon as possible, I am drawn to people whose critical thinking and other creative work shows insight and expansiveness of vision. One major failure I see over and over in presentations and even books is the thoughtless presumption of linear time typical in Western thought. This leads to “presentism,” or accepting the undue importance of the given moment, and then making an equally unexamined assumption about “progress”. These unexamined assumptions lead to further errors, such as the idea that technology is both neutral and inevitable. Neither is true. You can tell when someone is in the grip of these errors, when they start offering predictions about future developments. There is no burden of proof on such claims, so they float free of rationality: you can say pretty much anything.

Here’s a thought experiment that is actually rooted in baseball, the only major game in our culture that has no clock. What if time is not a line but a totality? How would that affect our sense of self and action? Of happiness? This is part of what people mean when they say, “Live in the moment,” which sounds like presentism in another guise but is in fact its opposite. I prefer to say, “Live in the game”.

Most phrases can become glib if they are repeated too often. What was meant to be insightful instead becomes opaque and mute. You could also construct a series of T-shirt sentiments: Don’t Fail Fast, Fail Better; Failing More Is Failing Better; etc. There’s truth in all of this, but failure needs to be mined more meaningfully in searching ways. Most of the management appropriation of this language is actually about success. And that misses the point, bypassing the opportunity for genuine reflection by seeing these ideas as tactical! No, sorry – you just failed at thinking about failure. Try again. Fail again. Never think about failure as a commodity. Study failure, yes. But repurpose or sell, absolutely not!

Mark Kingwell, PhD, is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine in New York, a prolific author, columnist and former Governor General’s Award winner (2013). His latest book Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters (Biblioasis 2017) expands on some of the themes covered in this blog.

[1]Beckett, Samuel. Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho: Three Novels (Grove Press: December 1984)

[2] Wilden, Anthony. The Rules Are No Game: The Strategy of Communication (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987)

Leave a Reply