By Oliver Burkman | The Guardian
In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity's shattered dreams. It doesn't look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you're seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won't find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.
This is consumer capitalism's graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it's almost certainly the only place on the planet where you'll find Clairol's A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette's equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum is home to discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; to TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; to self-heating soup cans that had a regrettable tendency to explode in customers' faces; and to packets of breath mints that had to be withdrawn from sale because they looked like the tiny packages of crack cocaine dispensed by America's street drug dealers. It is where microwaveable scrambled eggs – pre-scrambled and sold in a cardboard tube with a pop-up mechanism for easier consumption in the car – go to die.
There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that translates roughly as "the pathos of things": it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life's impermanence – that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth. It's only stretching the concept slightly to suggest that this is how the museum's proprietor, an understatedly stylish GfK employee named Carol Sherry, feels about the cartons of Morning Banana Juice in her care, or about Fortune Snookies, a short-lived line of fortune cookies for dogs. Every failure, the way she sees it, embodies its own sad story on the part of designers, marketers and salespeople. It is never far from her mind that real people had their mortgages, their car payments and their family holidays riding on the success of products such as A Touch of Yogurt.
"I feel really sorry for the developer on this one," Sherry says, indicating the breath mints that inadvertently resembled crack. "I mean, I've met the guy. Why would he ever have spent any time on the streets, in the drug culture?" She shakes her head. "These are real people who sincerely want to do their best, and then, well, things happen." The Museum of Failed Products – consumer capitalism’s very own graveyard. Photograph: Kelly K Jones The Museum of Failed Products was itself a kind of accident, albeit a happier one. Its creator, a now-retired marketing man named Robert McMath, merely intended to accumulate a "reference library" of consumer products, not failures per se. And so, starting in the 1960s, he began purchasing and preserving a sample of every new item he could find. Soon, the collection outgrew his office in upstate New York and he was forced to move into a converted granary to accommodate it; later, GfK bought him out, moving the whole lot to Michigan. What McMath hadn't taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: "Most products fail." According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.
By far the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that it should exist as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection – a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid making errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives who arrive every week at Sherry's door are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for success – so unwilling to invest time or energy thinking about their industry's past failures – that they only belatedly realise how much they need to access GfK's collection. Most surprising of all is that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum have come there to examine – or been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created, then abandoned. They were apparently so averse to dwelling on the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.
Failure is everywhere. It's just that most of the time we'd rather avoid confronting that fact.
Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it's our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a "negative path" to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.
In the world of self-help, the most overt expression of our obsession with optimism is the technique known as "positive visualisation": mentally picture things turning out well, the reasoning goes, and they're far more likely to do so. Indeed, a tendency to look on the bright side may be so intertwined with human survival that evolution has skewed us that way. In her book, The Optimism Bias, the neuroscientist Tali Sharot compiles growing evidence that a well-functioning mind may be built so as to perceive the odds of things going well as greater than they really are. Non-depressed people, research suggests, generally have a less accurate and overly optimistic grasp of their true ability to influence events than do those who are suffering from depression.
Yet there are problems with this outlook, aside from just feeling disappointed when things don't turn out well. Over the last few years, the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have constructed a series of experiments designed to unearth the truth about "positive fantasies about the future". The results are striking: spending time and energy focusing on how well things could go, it has emerged, actually reduces most people's motivation to achieve them. Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less. In one ingenious experiment, Oettingen had participants rendered mildly dehydrated. Then some were taken through an exercise that involved visualising drinking an icy, refreshing glass of water, while others took part in a different exercise. The water-visualisers experienced a significant reduction in their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure. Far from becoming more motivated to hydrate themselves, people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused imagining success with having already achieved it.
Read the complete piece at: guardian.co.uk