American Dream: Cascading Failure or Overlooked Reality

Liberty wanted poster


Wanted “American Dream” – Dead or Alive?

July 4th celebration of all things red, white and blue today and at the heart of all the fireworks is an enthusiasm for the American Dream. With “death of dreams” as a sub-topic to embracing failure, I’ve looked at this question a few times. In typical skeptic style, I present two alternative perspectives.

The first is a report from NBC asserting that Americans doth protest too much titled “American Dream Lives, but Few People Recognize It”…

  • “2014 Life Style Study, found that only 40 percent of American adults over the age of 18 believed they were ‘living the American Dream.’ That same 7,015-person study also found that sizable majorities reported owning a home, receiving a good education,’ finding a ‘decent job’ and giving their children better lives than they themselves had. Denise Delahorne, senior vice president at DDB, who worked closely with the survey, theorized that many people do not see themselves as having attained the traditional American Dream because of a shifting definition of the term. ‘If you’re new to this country, then life seems pretty good here,’ Delahorne said. ‘But for many people who have lived here a long time, they’ve started to think of the American Dream less as the traditional elements, and more relative to wealth.’"

On the contrarian side is the piece “Is America experiencing a failure cascade?” (thanks Chris). It’s not well written and sort of a laments American decline, but I include it here not just for thematic consistency, but also for its quite handy taxonomy of “failure cascades”…

  • “A cascading failure is a horrific mode of collapse. Engineers describe it as… a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts. Such a failure may happen in many types of systems, including power transmission, computer networking, finance and bridges. Cascading failures usually begin when one part of the system fails. When this happens, nearby nodes must then take up the slack for the failed component. This overloads these nodes, causing them to fail as well, prompting additional nodes to fail in a vicious cycle”

Failure cascades follow a predictable five-stage causal chain:…

  • Phase 1: Sustained Adversity – Adversity can take many forms, all of which amount to “bad things happening”. … Rather than relying on shocking incidents, adversity must be sustained and mundane to the point of being banal. … Unglamorous, everyday loss. … Adversity must also be inescapable.
  • Phase 2: Failure of Rationalization – Rationalization is a critical psychological defense…It is in this stage of the cascade that the propaganda war takes a deeper significance to all parties.
  • Phase 3: Collective Helplessness – Helplessness is a state where a pilot comes to believe that his actions on behalf of the alliance are pointless, impotent, or irrelevant in the face of adversity.
  • Phase 4: Change in Pilot Identification – A change in pilot identification is the primary method people use to escape helplessness in a failure cascade.
  • Phase 5: Collapse – the collapse of an alliance at the terminus of a failure cascade resembles an avalanche.

When Life Gives You Cancer


  • “The old say going ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ But what do you say when life gives you cancer?”

One individual who lost the race against cancer was the inspiring Stephen Sutton. He faced this affliction with poise and grace…

  • “I saw my first cancer diagnosis as a good thing. It was a huge kick up the backside that gave me a lot of motivation for life.”

He might not have beaten it, but he certainly dealt it a blow with his own heroic fund and awareness raising. He also made sure that he had the last laugh. After losing weight, getting pale and being wheelchair bound on the day, he was released from hospital which happened to coincide with the night of a fancy dress party. Steve decided to turn his condition into his costume and went dressed as a ‘convincing’ OAP.

Embracing the Beauty of Destruction

Cancer dress 1


Step aside flowers, exotic felines and rainbows. Cancerous cells are the latest inspiration on the catwalk. At least from the Jacqueline Firkins collection, “Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation between Destruction and Beauty”…

  • “A University of British Columbia costume design professor has created a collection of ball gowns inspired by photos of cancer cells with the goal of spurring discussion about “the disease, beauty, and body image” and creating alternative imagery for discussions of cancer that go beyond the pink ribbon, according to UBC. Left: Astrocytes cells from the brain ensure that neurons remain healthy. These cells are stained to show their filamentous ‘cytoskeleton’ which determines their shape as well as impacting their ability to move. In cancer cells, the more they move, the more aggressive the disease.”.

And if you want to shed a few pounds to fit into that perfect dress, June kicks of the Race for Life season (with the big Hyde Park run taking place today) to raise money to fight cancer so someday it will be relegated to the dress racks


Cancer dress

Mille Fois

Gapingvoid - 1000 good ideas


Ça vous avez mille fois raison. Je vous ai apporté des bonbons.” – Jaques Brel

1000 posts. That’s how many times I have pushed the “publish” button on the bon mots on the subject of Leadership and Management and Embracing Failure. Hugh’s rendition of the famous Steve Jobs’ quote seemed the most apropos way to mark the milestone. Lots of ideas shared. And plenty to reject.




Evolution doesn’t always mean progress. Yves Smith has coined the term “devolution” to describe a sort of dysfunctional evolution in his piece Devolution: Welcome to the World Where Things Don’t Work Well” (thanks Chris). Where systems evolve to a level of inscrutable complexity where

I do think that Smith is mixing a number of dynamics. He is highlight the survival of the fittest drive for efficiency while neglecting that equally powerful evolutionary force – sex (which drives big inefficiencies, the most classic of which is a peacock’s feathers). He is also asserting an unwavering social drive for efficiency over effectiveness, when that pivotal trade-off comes into play on a regular basis in business with effectiveness often winning out (eg. the trial-and-error of R&D, the crude and sometimes bumbling entrepreneurial start-ups). Nonetheless, I thought his piece was a good illustration of black box complexity

  • “When I took the introductory fine arts course in college (which actually was a tough course), one of the ideas that stuck with me was devolution. The instructors used that word in a very particular way, to apply to the changes that took place in late Roman art. Drill technology improved to the point where drills could be used to help create sculpture: they were faster and cheaper to use than chisels and hammers. But the results were cruder. It was easy to identify a late Roman bust: the curls and eyes were much coarser than in earlier Roman or Greek work… It’s become fashionable to discuss the creeping decay in advanced economies, particularly the US, both in term of third worldification and end of empire. The more apocalyptic turn to theories of collapse from writers like Jared Diamond and Jacques Tainter. But I think they miss one aspect that may prove to be important, that of how the pursuit of efficiency doesn’t always produce net gains, as economic theory might tell us. The measure of productivity, more stuff per unit input, misses how service/product quality can deteriorate…This trend to devolution may be a driver of collapse… But any complex system has a tradeoff between efficiency and robustness. This is something we discussed at length in ECONNED, how economic theory bizarrely assumes stability by assuming that economies have a propensity to equilibrium. That in turn gives them a bias in policy prescriptions to favor more efficiency and not even think about stability. Yes as Richard Bookstaber stressed in his book Demon of Our Own Design, highly efficient systems are prone to catastrophic failures, since disruptive processes propagate through the system too quickly for anyone to stop them. Taleb also argue that robust systems, like biological systems, are inefficient by virtue of having extra capacity (two kidneys, for instance).”

An entertaining example of effectiveness eroded by black box complexity is highlighted by John Oliver’s piece on net neutrality

If you want to do something evil, put it in something boring.”

And nothing creates boredom like complexity.

Solutions from Failure

guppy evolution


One of the best parts of Stephen Colbert’s ‘The Colbert Report” as his regular feature – “The Word”. Today’s word is – “Evolution”. The response to failure that has evolved deep in our minds is itself a process driven and guided by failure. As Tim Harford describes in his commentary on adaptation…

  • Biologists have a word for the way in which solution emerge from failure: evolution. Often summarised as the survival of the fittest, evolution is a process driven by the failure of the unfit…Evolution is effective because, rather than engaging in an exhaustive, time-consuming search for the highest peak – a peak that may not even be there tomorrow – it produces ongoing ‘works for now’ solutions to a complex and ever-changing set of problems…Professor Endler’s guppy experiments [showing that guppies with lots of colours live in areas where there are fewer predators since colours make them easier to spot] are a modern classic in evolutionary biology, and a striking example of how a population adapts to a new problem…It was a decentralised process, because no guppy planned the response. And it was driven by failure: some guppies were eaten, while others went on to produce future generation of well-adapted baby guppies.”

Best Hard Parts

Stephen Colbert family


“Learn to love the hard parts of being a parent, because they’re some of the best parts.” – Stephen Colbert

That’s Lesson 8 of “Stephen Colbert’s Guide To Being The Perfect Dad”…

  • “No one tells you anything about being a parent,” Colbert explained. ‘Here’s the thing, no matter what they tell you, they aren’t telling you anything, because you just can’t explain it, ya know? You just can’t explain what it’s like to be a parent until you are a parent. It’s like, poetry might get at it, but it’s such an experience, not an idea, that trying to explain it…There’s no explaining it. I didn’t know what to expect. But I think the most surprising thing is that, while it’s hard — it’s hard — but even the hard parts are just beautiful. Because they’re hard, sometimes.”

They don’t come much harder than Charleston Mayor Danny Jones’ predicament leading to him calling for the police arrest of his own son

  • “Zachary Jones, son of the mayor of Charleston, W.V., was arrested Thursday on a drug charge. His father said he was relieved and thinks jail will save his life. Police Chief Brent Webster [said] Webster said the mayor had spoken to him in the past about his son’s drug problem. ‘He’s told me, I don’t want to get a call at two in the morning that he’s been killed. I’d rather hear he’s in jail,’ the police chief said. The mayor said that in 2011, a friend bailed his son out of jail. He hopes that doesn’t happen this time. ‘I plead with those in the law-enforcement, judicial and jail and prison system to treat my son no better or worse than any other defendant," he said in his statement. "My son does not need anyone to save him from taking this life-saving fall. I think the only place that’s safe for him is jail, and I’m sorry to say it.’”

Sometimes the hardest parts is watching the failures your children face and endure especially when you see them coming right at them. But many times the best, ‘life saving’ parenting you can do is to let the failure happen.

Happy Fathers Day!


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