Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Whatever Happened to Murphy’s Law?

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” That’s Murphy’s Law, and most of us over the age of 30 probably heard it for the first time in high school. Whether we knew it or not, it was our first brush with philosophy. But then, like so many other iconic principles from the 20th Century, it just went away.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, an endless parade of “glass-half-full” happy talkers and human resource motivators and self-help gurus bombarded us with platitudes like “Failure is not an option,” and “Life rewards the risk takers,” and “Success is just a matter of learning to manage the expectations of others.” Murphy’s Law was deemed to be too pessimistic and negative for this new culture that preached unbounded positivity in all aspects of modern life. The final nail in the coffin was Y2K. Never before had a potential calamity been subjected to study and pre-planning with such attention to ultimate disastrous consequence as this predicted failure of the world’s computer systems. But then, when midnight December 31, 1999 arrived— nothing bad happened. Everything that could go wrong, didn’t go wrong, and Americans mistakenly assumed that Murphy’s Law no longer applied. Then came the 21st Century.

In the last decade, America has suffered through the Stock Market plunge of late 2000, followed by 9/11, followed by Enron, followed by the embarrassing and pathetic military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by the in-flight destruction of the space shuttle, Columbia, followed by Hurricane Katrina, followed by the real estate bubble collapse and subsequent epidemic of home foreclosures, followed by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and skyrocketing unemployment, followed by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by an instantaneous 1000 point drop in the DOW. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the disgusting, dirty little secret that many wing-nut Americans see the election of a black President as yet another tragic failure in “the system.” What all of these events have in common is that they came as a complete surprise to just about every American, including the people in high places who were being paid big money to avoid being surprised. Surprise is what you get when you ignore Murphy’s Law. Only the surprise of Hurricane Katrina was excusable.

So now, as we enter the second decade of this dysfunctional 21st Century, it should be evident to everyone that Murphy’s Law is still alive and well. It’s always been true that the failure to imagine and anticipate a downside betrays a shallowness of intellect, and this is the case now more than ever before. Recapturing our healthy sense of modern reality means ignoring the happy talkers, and realizing that failure is not optional— it’s inevitable, and appreciating the fact that carnival magicians are the only people who can reliably count on achieving success in their chosen profession simply by managing the expectations of others.

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