THE TRIUMPH OF MEDIOCRITY
Terviö doesn't use the term "failing up." His subject is "market failure in the discovery of talent." But these are related problems, I assure you.
Let's say you want to hire somebody to run your well-known magazine. The pool of candidates includes (a) journalists who show some promise, but haven't run a magazine, and (b) journalists who have run magazines but performed at a mediocre level. Whom do you hire?
There are no correct answers here, only risks and opportunities. The risk of hiring the whippersnapper is that he might be in over his head. The risk of hiring the incumbent is that, having been visibly mediocre in a former job, she might demonstrate the same mediocrity in the new job.
But the odds favor the second "incumbent" candidate for a few surprising reasons (besides "she has more experience"). First, an unproven worker might cost extra money. You might have to train him. You might have to wait until his talent emerges. And after all this, he might leave you before the firm has captured the full benefits of his talent.
Second, at the highest levels of some very public industries -- such as sports or entertainment -- there is a perceived scarcity of talent. But the more important limitation might be the scant opportunity to demonstrate talent. There are fewer elite jobs than super-talented people. As a result, we probably underestimate the number of uniquely talented people, because only a sliver of them are currently in jobs where they can prove how awesome they are.
"When talent is industry-specific, can only be revealed on the job,
and once learned becomes public information, firms tend to
bid excessively for the pool of incumbent workers at the expense of
trying out new talent," Terviö writes. This bias leads to mediocre workers crowding out the talented whippersnappers. The upshot
is a worse-off company (or movie, or sports team) and higher wages for "known high
Put another way: To be noticeably mediocre in a job with considerable public exposure is a mixed blessing. You were mediocre. But you were noticed! There is a bias toward favoring mediocre incumbents in professions "where performance on the job is to a
large extent publicly observable."
DOES ANYBODY REALLY FAIL UP?
In the process of writing this, I asked Twitter which actor, athlete or coach has "failed up" most blatantly. The responses complicated any easy theory about "failing up."
Numerous people suggested Lane Kiffin (at left), the current football coach at USC. He's a decent choice, having endured troubled runs with the University of Tennessee and the Oakland Raiders before his latest promotion. But he also had success as USC's offensive coordinator ten years ago. Others suggested Nick Saban, the football coach who failed to turn around the Miami Dolphins and was rewarded with the head coaching spot at Alabama. But he had been a legend at LSU. Another offered Isiah Thomas (pictured above), the NBA star whose post-player career has been a series of embarrassments in Indiana and New York City.