The Atlantic is throwing around a new term for the McConaugheys, Kutchers, Kiffins in all of us. “Failing Up” is the phenomenon in high-risk, high-dividend vocations (movies, professional sports, even investment banking) where a history of mediocrity actually, sometimes, pays off. As opposed to traditional mythologies of progress that tie improved paychecks to improving performance, “failing up” rewards those who seem not to get that much better than being an overall disappointment. It’s the phenomenon that rewards Ryan Reynolds with an enormously high-budgeted Green Lantern film–when he’s really done nothing out of the ordinary to “prove himself.” It keeps finding work for losing football coaches, tested-and-beaten NBA stars, washed-up TV stars–and not just any work, good work: D-1 head coaching positions, starting spots on better teams, movie contracts. What is behind this twisted scenario?

Derek Thompson takes a closer look and finds that there’s unfortunately not as much to the phenomenon as he had initially hoped. The names we shake our fists at are the names that we know best–people who have, at some point in their careers, made a name for themselves. In other words, movie stars and head coaches don’t really “fail up” as much as we think they do. They get top positions because of some kind of gold star on their record. It still may not justify the kinds of gigs they are landing, but there’s inevitably some meritorious basis to their success. That is, it would appear Hollywood and the Super Bowl–surprise, surprise–operate according to the same achievement ladders as the rest of the world.

It’s intriguing that we yearn for “failing up” to be true, though. Why? As much as we love our justice systems (we bicker about who should have gotten the USC job–or the promotion at the office–or the new Bond movie), something within us perks up when we hear about “failing up,” and it’s not necessarily because we root for the undeserving. In fact, we root against Ashton Kutcher every time. If not Kutcher, someone who has been unfairly promoted. So why the fuss? Why does failing upward sound so enticing? Simply put, we want to receive the unlikely raise ourselves. We’re well acquainted with the fail part–we just hope something, someone, can lift us up. As much as we love to count the beans for ourselves and others, we also suspect that we’re fired unless we’re promoted by some fluke. If we are to be justified, or seen as good enough for the job, someone needs to certify us. They need to impute to us qualities we don’t possess. A little unfairness, in this sense, is our only chance. Barring a miracle of course–which can happen, indeed, even in Hollywood:

I have a confession to make. I have a problem with actor Matthew McConaughey. Matthew could be a really swell guy, but for a star cast in ten movies in the last five years, he lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Actually, scratch that. I do sais quoi. He can’t act. We grow up. His emotional capacity stays the same age.

You might have heard the term “failing up.” I would define it as the ability to advance in your career — e.g.: being promoted, finding a better job, being cast in Ghosts of Girlfriends Pastdespite demonstrating mediocre talent. It’s true for entertainers. It’s true for overpaid corporate executives. What’s behind the failing up phenomenon?

Marko Terviö might have an idea. He’s the author of Superstars and Mediocrities: Market Failures in the Discovery of Talent, a 2008 research paper I read, after seeing it at Marginal Revolution. Terviö’s thesis is that some industries are particularly susceptible to the career advancement of mediocre talent — especially in fancy management positions, sports, and Hollywood.

…In the process of writing this, I asked Twitter which actor, athlete or coach has “failed up” most blatantly. The responses complicated any easy theory about “failing up.”

Numerous people suggested Lane Kiffin, the current football coach at USC. He’s a decent choice, having endured troubled runs with the University of Tennessee and the Oakland Raiders before his latest promotion. But he also had success as USC’s offensive coordinator ten years ago. Others suggested Nick Saban, the football coach who failed to turn around the Miami Dolphins and was rewarded with the head coaching spot at Alabama. But he had been a legend at LSU. Another offered Isiah Thomas (pictured above), the NBA star whose post-player career has been a series of embarrassments in Indiana and New York City.

Shifting to movies, some coworkers challenged the assumption that Matthew McConaughey had failed at all. Hadn’t Fool’s Gold made $111 million worldwide? Wouldn’t Ashton Kutcher be a better choice, having landed the biggest role in TV comedy despite sleep-walking his way through a movie career? Hadn’t Ryan Reynolds failed to beat expectations in practically every movie he carried?

When you lasso all of the “failing up” candidates, the first thing you see is that all have something in common: Before they “failed up,” they had succeeded up! Kiffin thrived at USC, Saban won a championship, Thomas was an all-star, Kutcher was a celebrity, and Reynolds was a cross-over TV/movie star.

Before famous people reached a point where they could be accused of accruing unearned plaudits, most of them did something to become famous. After all, publicity isn’t just a random platform on which people might see you doing a mediocre job. It’s also an indicator that you did something right and achieved something scarce, which is public attention.

For most of us, there is a funneling process that produces and highlights elite talent. But after that initial funneling, attention becomes its own asset, which can be exploited to an extent that, in some industries, career development appears to be the result of the self-perpetuating power of publicity rather than the logical result of clearly earned success. Take our friend, Matthew McConaughey. His biggest movie in the last five years was the romantic comedy Failure to Launch. Was it horrible? Of course it was horrible. It also made $100 million. Failing up into Failure takes a certain kind of success.