Lloyds of London: Awards for failure
Father and son Stephen and Toby Lloyd talk motivation, lies and bad sex in their latest Pioneers Post column.
One of the strange things about the modern world is how bad we at are criticising each other. This was brought forcibly home to me the other day reading The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. He has an interesting chapter entitled "How praise can cause a loss of confidence"! This is the antithesis of the American tendency for indulgence in extravagant praise: apparently children who were praised just for being clever did not progress. On the other hand children who were praised for working hard became more resilient, tried harder and did better over time.
Another aspect of the praise hype is that you rarely get good knocking reviews of bad plays or awful films. How many novels make you wish for a decent editor who would cut 100 pages or so?
Maybe we struggle with criticism because we're not clear about what it's for. Much of the new digital forms of criticism – twitter storms and blog trolling being the obvious examples – are largely pointless, or at least only serve the purpose of letting off steam for people who spend too long in front of screens.
I'm a big fan of the Bad Sex writing award. I was pleased to see Simon Singh is behind a new prize, The Golden Duck Award for Quackery. The first award went to Andrew Wakefield – he of the opposition to the MMR vaccination. so that set me thinking. What other golden ducks or their equivalent should we be giving out for bad public policies? George Osborne is an obvious candidate. But who else?
The Bad Sex awards aren’t even really criticism at all. Like last week’s Razzie awards for crap films, or the IgNobels for pointless research, they are basically fun, and don't fundamentally criticise the winners (or culprits), or challenge us to do things differently. The Golden Duck is another matter: it’s naming and shaming people for damaging, bad science. Criticising people as a means of holding them accountable is important – and there are some sectors that could clearly do with a bit more of it. How about an Economic Destruction award, or the Golden Trousers for Corporate Greed, like the one proposed by Nicholas Kristof a few years ago?
I would go for The Goebbels Prize for the Big Lie. Goebbels famously said that you could always get away with a big lie, but not a small one. The first award should go not to Chris Huhne whose career has been destroyed by a small lie. No, step forward David Cameron for his sheer chutzpah in solemnly promising that the NHS would not be opened up to commercial competition only to publish last week secondary legislation that will enable just that. Is the Daily Mail screaming "LIAR"? No... this is a big lie; it's a complicated one and so the PM will no doubt get away with it.
An awards ceremony for mendacious politicians is going to be a very long night indeed.... But there’s also a danger that naming and shaming can shade into labelling heretics as thought criminals, a sure way to stifle innovation and creativity. The fun awards at least make failure more of a light hearted issue, and so hopefully encourage risk taking. Perhaps the best way to treat failure is to combine both approaches: celebrating failure as a means of learning and improving. The Silicon Valley model is famously all about failing – allegedly you’re nothing in the Valley until you’ve gone bust twice.
By all means celebrate failure, and this country needs to be much better at that. But let's also get better at real, informed criticism and if a few high profile prizes can assist in that so much the better. Anyone willing to sponsor that Goebbels Prize?