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Loss Leaders

A Historian Considers the Flip Side to Success

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C01

A year before his grandmother died, Scott Sandage sat down with a tape recorder and asked her to talk about her life. She told him how she used to hear her husband crying at night.

Sandage's grandfather was an immigrant kid whose parents pulled him out of school to work in the brickyards in Mason City, Iowa. Surviving the Depression as a traveling salesman, he then started making mattresses, one at a time. He made mattresses for 35 years, taking custom orders in a small shop, scraping by. He would tell his wife he felt like a failure -- I'm not smart enough to keep the family together; you graduated from high school, I didn't even graduate from grade school -- and she would always try to buck him up. Still, she would hear him weeping.


Scott Sandage, the author of "Born Losers," explores America's hangup about failure. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

After telling this story, Sandage says, his grandmother was quiet for a long time.

Then she said: "He was a darn good man."

Sandage was 19 at the time. He went off to college, part of the first generation in his family to do so, and ended up as a historian at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His book "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America" is out this month from Harvard University Press. A serious work of cultural history, built on a decade of research, "Losers" uses the stories of forgotten Americans to offer a new perspective on our conventional national narrative of striving and success.

Strip away the academic trappings, however, and "Born Losers" starts to look like something very different.

It's a self-help book for stressed-out Americans. The problem Sandage is trying to help us with is: Why are we never satisfied with the life we've got? Why do we always want more?

Or to put it another way:

What made that good man, his grandfather, feel so bad?

Sandage is talking losers over breakfast at Washington's Tabard Inn. A tall man of 40 with an understated goatee, he's driven in this morning from Frederick, where his mother lives. The traffic was bumper to bumper on I-270 and he watched with astonishment -- his Pittsburgh routine doesn't involve commuting at rush hour -- as drivers bulled their way in and out of lanes to gain a five-car-length advantage. Americans, he says, have developed the mentality "that you have to move all the time, that you have to inch your way ahead, and if you don't, you're going to be left behind."

Where does this sense of urgency come from? To provoke discussion, Sandage sometimes asks Carnegie Mellon students to consider the following proposition: "Your life is controlled by a rotting corpse five hours east of here." He's talking about Benjamin Franklin, who's buried in Philadelphia. Franklin's maxims include the ultimate self-help mantra: "There are no gains without pains."

"Born Losers" started out as Sandage's dissertation, and self-help is part of what got him going on it. In graduate school at Rutgers, he noted with astonishment that the biggest section in Borders always seemed to be "this wall of books on 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.' " Success literature, he knew, had helped shape American psyches since Franklin's day -- "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" might as well be our national motto -- yet surely there was a less visible flip side:

Losers have stories, too. What if he tried to run some down?

"No one else to my knowledge has written this kind of book before," says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. "To understand the development of entrepreneurial America, you need to understand the failures as well as the successes." Most histories, Kazin says, focus on the great success stories -- "Rockefeller, Carnegie, big corporations." Even successful small businessmen have been underrepresented, while those who failed have been invisible.


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