Nothing Fails Like Success

The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.

Forty years ago, Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull set out to explain why incompetence runs rampant in society. Apparently, the business community felt they did a bang-up job, because their book, “The Peter Principle,” became a number one best-seller. But thousands of business books have been published since 1969, and after all that accumulated wisdom, “The Peter Principle” (2009) seems dated and—to a certain extent—obsolete.

Don’t get me wrong. Some aspects of Peter & Hull’s work still resonate, and the book’s meandering satirical wit has its charms, particularly the chapter titled “The Pathology of Success,” which cheekily highlights the wide array of physical ailments—ulcers, colitis, migraines and hypertension, to name a few—that tend to afflict the “very successful.” And kudos to Robert I. Sutton (author of the international best-seller, “The No Asshole Rule”), who gamely attempts to make “Peter” seem timely and relevant in his foreword to this new edition.

In essence, the main idea of “The Peter Principle” can be summarized in four words: “Nothing fails like success.” That is, all employees in a hierarchy will ultimately rise to, and remain at, their level of incompetence, at which point they will no longer do any useful work. Unfortunately, in the course of making their point, the authors advance a continuous stream of highfalutin-sounding terms—“Cachinatory inertia” (telling jokes instead of working), and “Tabulatory gigantism” (obsession with large-size desks), for example—which necessitates a seven-page glossary.  I’m sure such pseudoscientific jargon was amusing back in ’69, but in an age where workers  routinely use big words like “disintermediate” and “operationalize” in an attempt to sound smart, all the ostensibly clever jargon gets to be a bit much. 

However, give Peter & Hull credit for being 40 years ahead of their time in terms of inventing a phrase that effectively mocks serial text messengers and their IM lingo. Using “F.O.B. is in N.Y. as O.C. for I.M.C. of B.U. on 802” to illustrate a person trying to make the trivial sound impressive, the authors define Initial and Digital Codophilia as “an obsession with speaking [or now, texting or messaging] in letters and numbers rather than words.” Nuf z.