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Career-Building Blunder

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"I called over there for a reference, left word with some snooty girl, next thing you know I got a fax from Miranda Priestly saying that of all the assistants she ever hired, you were by far her biggest disappointment... And if I don't hire you, I'm an idiot. You must have done something right."

If I was going to fire you, you'd be gone already.

Sometimes, an intelligent boss will determine that the best candidate for an important job is the one who has just caused a disaster.

We have the Boss. He is in the position of authority and decides who comes and who goes. He may be a feudal lord, a military officer, a businessman, a politician, whatever, but he will usually turn out to be more insightful a leader than most (and definitely not incompetent). He's got to make a decision about who to keep or promote, and is watching his subordinates carefully. Variants could include judges analyzing contestants to a competition or teachers selecting their students.

A subordinate screws up badly: someone dies, lots of money/time/resources are lost, a battle is a rout. He thinks he's screwed, but the Boss decides to keep or even promote them on the basis of this failure on reasoning that the subordinate will forever more be motivated by that mistake. Thus they are giving the subordinate an opportunity for My Greatest Second Chance.

In short, this trope refers to any situation where someone with authority chooses a candidate who has failed terribly because they feel the memory of that failure will push them to excel in the future, rather than be predictive of their performance overall. Superiors who follow this trope may have a similar failure in their own past.

The employee might become a Failure Knight, dovetailing with this trope: someone with empathic, almost embarrassing levels of devotion stemming from their past failure.

See also Secret Test of Character, Training "Accident", You Did Everything You Could, and Necessary Fail. Contrast with You Have Failed Me, when a subordinate gets harshly (often terminally) punished for possibly trivial mistakes. Sub-trope of Mistakes Are Not the End of the World.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Soul Eater Arachne gives this as a reason for averting You Have Failed Me.
  • In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, this is one of Reinhard von Lohengramm's most admirable traits: when a subordinate fails him, he just tells him that he knows the subordinate learned his lesson and will do better next time. He is universally right in his judgment. note 

  • Babette's Feast: As a young lieutenant, Lorens Löwenhielm falls into debt and makes a mess of his career. He is exiled to his aunt's manor in Jutland, where he falls in love with one of the film's protagonists and is rejected. This inspires him to rededicate his life to the military. When we next see him, he is an accomplished general.
  • In Starship Troopers, Rico is leading the squad when one of his team is shot during a live-fire training exercise. Rico expects to be drummed out, but shows such responsibility that Zim, his sergeant, recommends administrative punishment instead, allowing Rico to stay. Rico, however, declines the invitation, due to his sense of shame, and opts to leave the infantry in disgrace. However, after the Bugs destroy Buenos Aires, his home city, he requests to be reinstated and finishes his training.

  • In Differently Morphous, despite the Ministry's many blunders, Sean Anderson decides not to fire anyone involved because their PR disasters are so colossal, they draw attention away from the government's more mundane day-to-day failings.
  • In Lee Lightner's Warhammer 40,000 Space Wolf novel Sons of Fenris, when Tor has unwisely led his forces into an ambush, Ragnar chooses him to lead to the attack on a warp portal because Tor:
    Needs an opportunity to redeem himself, Ranulf. Redemption requires two things: desire and opportunity. I know this better than most.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • In The Thrawn Trilogy, Grand Admiral Thrawn promotes a subordinate who failed to capture Luke's ship with a Tractor Beam. The subordinate received high praise because he went above and beyond his duty in his efforts, creating new strategies on the fly that, even though they failed, still bespoke top-notch problem-solving skills. (Bonus points for actually taking responsibility for his failure.) The tractor beam operator was then told to work out a way to counter Luke's trick. He did.
      • Contrast with a similar situation earlier in the trilogy; the tractor beam operator, in that case, exhibited both incompetence and insubordination—he had failed to capture the right target and then tried to pass the buck on to his superior. Once Thrawn got a grasp of the situation, that tractor beam operator was executed.
      • Thrawn also extended this sort of forgiveness to an officer named General Drost who permitted a Star Destroyer in drydock to be destroyed in a surprise attack. Pellaeon fully expected Thrawn to order the man killed, but after calling him on the carpet, Thrawn ordered him to come up with security procedures that would prevent this sort of thing in the future. Thrawn later explained to Pellaeon that Drost was a good officer but had become complacent, and this expensive lesson would cure him of that problem for some time.
    • This trope is also how Wedge Antilles manages the formation of Wraith Squadron; previously-trained pilots who screwed up in various ways, many of them not really their fault, get one last chance. Wedge is scrupulous about the pilots he accepts, though; of the ~40 pilots that try out, only ten make it in.
    • This happened, in a rather unusual way, to Bevel Lemelisk, one of the designers of the original Death Star. He had been responsible for the exhaust port flaw on the original Death Star. The Emperor had him executed for that blunder... and then used a Sith technique to transfer his consciousness to a clone body. Lemelisk was then placed in charge of redesigning the Death Star. And every time he made another mistake, the Emperor would execute him in some new gruesome manner, then transfer his consciousness to a clone body again.
  • Piankhy, the title character of The Black Pharaoh by Christian Jacq, does this to a village leader who betrayed him, not before scaring him a bit by shaking a knife.
  • Artemis Fowl: Julius Root is hard on Holly for several reasons. One of them being that she failed once and failed badly, and she must thus be the best to have that one failure be minimal compared to the rest of her actions.
  • The Lost Fleet: A key aspect of Captain, later Admiral Geary's leadership style, much to the surprise of his subordinates when he has to deal with a full-blown mutiny; only the ringleaders are relieved of command and placed under arrest, while the ones who'd just let themselves be talked into it by charismatic but incompetent Captain Falco are let off with a warning. They go on to be some of his most loyal and dedicated subordinates.
  • A variant in Unseen Academicals, when Ridcully discovers that one of the wizards broke the cardinal rules surrounding the highly dangerous Cabinet of Curiosity, and almost died as a result. Rather than thinking he's learned his lesson, however, Ridcully promotes him because he's an independent thinker who took a risk and didn't die, and surely that's worth rewarding?

    Live Action TV 
  • House: is the former Trope Namer.
    • In Season 4, Thirteen fatally confounded a diagnosis by accident. Dr. House reasoned that Thirteen would be incredibly attentive to detail after that case. On another occasion, he helps an astronaut further her career in spite of medical considerations that could have made NASA wary. House simply concluded that his patient would be the safest astronaut NASA could possibly hire, given how informed she was about her condition and how desperate she was to do her job well. He then tells NASA about her disability anyway because he's not an idiot: someone with her medical issues has no business being in control of the Space Shuttle and he knows it. Except not really. He just said that so the other members of his team wouldn't rat her out on their own.
    • In season two's "The Mistake": After Chase kills a patient by neglecting to ask some routine questions and gets sued by her brother, House decides not to fire him. It's not because he figured that Chase would learn from his mistake, but because he'd figured that since the news of the death of Chase's father had led to his screw-up, it wouldn't happen again because now both his parents were dead.
  • Happy Days: Chachi accidentally burns down Arnold's. Al (the owner) is upset about the fire but doesn't blame Chachi because it was an accident. Fonzie chews Chachi out about it, then appoints Chachi as his representative at the new Arnold's (in which Fonzie's partner with Al), because Fonz knows Chachi will make sure not to screw up again.
  • The Sandbaggers: The Director of Operations uses something like this to select his titular spies; his secretary observes that all his agents are superhumanly dedicated to making up for a self-perceived defect or inadequacy.
  • The West Wing
    • The pilot episode of has Josh get this treatment from Pres. Bartlet.
    • Leo does it to Paris after she leaks his former drug habit.
  • CSI: Grissom is told to fire Warrick because Warrick left a scene and, as a result, rookie CSI Holly Gribbs is killed. Grissom tells Warrick that he's already lost one CSI and that he doesn't want to lose another. note  Warrick then becomes one of the most reliable members of The Team.
  • Hell's Kitchen: Once an Episode, Gordon Ramsey has the best member of the losing team reason why their teammates should either leave or stay. He then calls out the teammates whose departure was recommended and has them defend themselves. Almost all of the time, only one person is eliminated, giving the other nominated person a chance to stay and improve. Several people have gone on to win it all despite multiple nominations for elimination. On occasion, Gordon will eliminate someone who wasn't nominated (sometimes because they were on the winning team) but seriously screwed up, giving all nominees a chance to improve. Of course, if the chef doesn't shape up, they soon get the boot anyway.
  • Life On Mars: Sam's modern policing style allows a criminal to go free who subsequently puts a woman working in CID in a coma. After a hilarious fight with Gene in the woman's hospital room, Sam assumes Gene will want to kick him off the team. Gene fires back with: "Are you joking? You've got to put this right. She's not giving up and nor should you."
  • Ashes to Ashes (2008) pulls this one when Chris turns out to have been corrupt. Gene decides that the shame of still working in CID with everyone knowing what he did will be his punishment.
  • In season two of The Wire, Lt. Daniels hires Sgt. Carver as part of his team again despite Carver snitching about their progress to the higher-ups which led to severe meddling in the investigation the previous season, explaining that he knows Carver won't do it again after seeing how wrong it went the first time, and with extra attention on him.
  • Doctor Who: Harriet Jones (MP, Flydale North) stumbles into Downing Street to promote her new health regulation ideas... during the middle of an alien invasion. Being too stubborn to back off, despite everyone repeatedly telling her to, she accidentally spots the aliens while trying to plant her files in the emergency program suitcase. This leads to her meeting the Doctor and becoming the lone reliable witness of the alien battle. The Doctor encourages her to become the invasion's media darling, knowing that it would lead to her eventually becoming Prime Minister of the UK as a result.
  • The Practice: Early in his career, Bobby put on a half-hearted defense of a man he'd been appointed to represent as a public defender, believing him to be guilty; the man was convicted of murder. The man was exonerated several years later and hired Bobby to handle his wrongful imprisonment suit, figuring he'd be motivated to atone for his own role in the conviction.
  • On Law & Order, when Ben Stone was a young Assistant District Attorney, he accidentally sent privileged information over to the defense in a case he was working on that cost them the trial. The DA at the time didn't fire him, figuring Stone would be not only more prudent but also forgiving of others when they made similar blunders.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation: An indirect example in the Season 7 episode "The Pegasus". Captain Picard mentions that the deciding factor that persuaded him to take on Will Riker as his XO was actually a reprimand in his record for "insubordination" (read: "telling a superior officer something they didn't want to hear"), showing Riker to be someone who cared more about doing his duty than looking good before a promotion board.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
      • In "Rules of Engagement" Worf was once put on trial for mistakenly firing on a Klingon civilian ship and killing everyone on board. Fortunately, it was a frame-up job and Worf did not actually kill anyone and is subsequently cleared of all charges. However, he did still fire before properly identifying his target, and Sisko rightly upbraids him for it. Sisko also tells him that this experience will probably prepare him to be a great captain.
      • Unfortunately, subverted in the later episode "Change of Heart", where Worf again breaks protocol, this time to save his otherwise-fatally-injured wife, resulting in a totally botched mission (a valuable enemy defector ends up dead). Sisko, as his superior officer, advises Worf that this failure probably means he will never be offered the position of captain. Then, "as a man who lost his wife", Sisko admits he probably would have done the exact same thing in Worf's place. He also admits that it was a mistake to put the two of them together on a mission like that in the first place.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Triple H was the only one of a group of four people to be punished for what was known as "The MSG Incident." Triple H and Shawn Michaels hugged Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, who were on their way to WCW. Someone caught this on camera, and it quickly made the rounds. Since Hall and Nash were gone, and Michaels was the WWE Champion at the time, Triple H had to take the whole of the punishment. One would think this incident would keep him at the bottom of the card for the rest of his life, and utterly ruin him, despite Triple H's love for the business. Fast forward to today: Triple H is married to Vince McMahon's daughter, won thirteen WWE world titles in his career and is being groomed to take over the business side of the WWE.note 

    Religion and Mythology 

    Video Games 
  • Averted in Final Fantasy XIV. When recruiting for Alphinaud's Crystal Braves group, one of those you pick up is Laurentius, a former member of the Wood Wailers of Gridania, who sold out to the Garleans for a bit of gil. He tells you he's willing to change and is happy for the chance to right his wrong. However, it turns out that he's been bought out by Teledji Adaledji and he actively plots against you, planting a bottle that would be used to accuse you of assassinating Sultana Nanamo.

    Western Animation 
  • Transformers Generation 1: Aerialbot Silverbolt is scared of heights and screws up during a mission. Optimus Prime promotes him to Aerialbot leader, knowing that the responsibility will take his mind away from his fears.

    Real Life 
  • Napoleon Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich about this trope happening in real life. An executive had just started working at Andrew Carnegie's company, US Steel. The new guy ruined a million-dollar project and humbly asked the boss if he would be fired. Andrew Carnegie said "Fire you? We just spent a million dollars training you! " Supposedly the new guy was highly motivated to make it up to the company.
  • Admiral Nimitz did this a number of times during World War II and got some quite talented commanders out of it. Admiral Nimitz himself had this trope occur when he accidentally ran a destroyer he was conning aground. Normally, this would be a career-ending event in the Navy, but then-Ensign Nimitz was spared.
  • When Listeria bacteria were found in the products of an Israeli pizza chain, one professor stated that that pizza chain would from then on be the safest one in the country, as they could be trusted never to let it happen again after the publicity and economic hit they took as a result.
  • In the '90s, restaurant chain Jack in the Box had cases of e. Coli stemming from undercooked meat, causing some deaths. The resulting publicity threatened to close down the chain, but the company put out a lot of effort to ensure their burgers would never be undercooked again, and the publicity from those efforts helped make Jack even bigger than before.
  • Christopher Titus says this was his father's primary parenting method: let him do dangerous things like stick a penny in a wall socket, then after he was hurt, saying "You're not gonna do that again, are you?" In this case, it was more 'let you screw up under supervision where I can make sure it won't kill you, so you'll know better than to do it when I'm not there to protect you' than 'not firing you as my son for being a moron because you'll learn.' Back when houses frequently had fire in them, letting a kid stick its hand in the fire under supervision (or even burning them yourself) was often recommended so that they would learn from a very early age that fire hurts, and wouldn't go blundering into it and dying while your back was turned.
  • In a possible company example, after the Exxon-Valdez debacle, Exxon reinvented itself by developing an obsession with safety.
  • Relatively common in the US military, where a soldier is put in charge of something, and receiving the training to be qualified to be in charge of it, after they screw up something in the first place. Said soldiers become very conscious about ensuring that it is done right all the time, especially as one more screw-up means that they will be punished more harshly due to the fact that they now know better.

Alternative Title(s): House Hiring Heuristic