I have a confession: I LOVED the original “Jump the Shark” episode of the ABC series “Happy Days.” For those who weren’t alive or don’t remember, this episode involved Henry Winkler as “The Fonz” accepting a challenge to his manhood to make a water ski jump over a shark. “Happy Days” and the movie “Jaws” were cultural touchstones in the late 1970s, and there were two things that six-year-old me knew for sure: The Fonz was the coolest guy around and sharks were damn scary. Putting the two together was pure genius (thank you, Garry Marshall et al.). That Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham drove the boat and the Fonz wore his trademark leather jacket the entire time made the episode even more outrageously fantastic.
So I’ve been quite dismayed that the term “jumped the shark” has become synonymous with epic disaster from which there can be no recovery. A show that has jumped the shark is laughable—creatively dead and no longer worth our time. And we are obsessed with figuring out who has jumped the shark. Most of the major shows on television right now have been accused of jumping the shark, including hits such as “Dancing with the Stars,” “Scandal” and “Mad Men.” The debate is not simply among television fans and entertainment journalists; former CIA spy Valerie Plame recently went on record saying the Showtime series “Homeland” had jumped the shark.
And shark-jumping is no longer reserved for television shows. South by Southwest, the music festival, has apparently jumped the shark because it has expanded its focus beyond music to include technology and entrepreneurship and, thus, is no longer on the cutting edge of “relevance.” The White House has jumped the shark because its campaign to promote the Affordable Care Act has included celebrities such as Lance Bass of ‘N Sync. Even quinoa—an innocent healthy grain minding its own business while being consumed by us—can also jump the shark because of its ubiquity. In fact it’s hard to locate anything that influences culture that hasn't jumped the shark.
Why are we consumed with labeling everything as having jumped the shark?
On the one hand, the “jumped the shark” label is capitalism at its best; it helps us determine how to most effectively use our time, money and resources. We naturally want to avoid spending time watching television shows that are no longer up to par, attending concerts that may not deliver the best bang-for-the-buck, or eating food that may not be as healthy as we thought. In fact, our whole economic system involves this approach—we are perpetually trying to determine which companies are going to succeed or fail to know how to invest wisely. So from this perspective, “jumped the shark” is a quick and easy label to help us avoid unwanted pursuits.
The label is insidious, however, in that it suggests there is no recovery from a mistake. While a certain amount of pessimism can actually be helpful in identifying and analyzing problems, to say something has jumped the shark suggests hopelessness—a mistake from which there is no return. Hopelessness has been shown to undermine motivation and worsen mood. In more extreme cases, hopelessness has been identified as a risk factor for psychological problems such as depression and suicide, as well as for health problems such as coronary heart disease. If the targets of “jumped the shark” labels adopt this hopeless self-view, the consequences could be damaging.
The label is further harmful for all of us because it ignores the fact that in order to succeed, we need to fail. As media mogul Sumner Redstone has said, “Success is not built on success, it’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.” Do we really want to live in a world where people are not willing to fail in spectacular fashion? In his book “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure,” economist Tim Harford describes a series of instances in which successful innovations sprang from failure, such as Spitfire, the experimental aircraft used during World War II. One of corporate strategist Rana Florida’s five tips for success is to remember that “screwing up is a good sign.”
The very essence of the creative spirit is the willingness to fail, and there is evidence of this even among those that have been tagged as having jumped the shark. To start, even the “Jump the Shark” episode didn’t stop “Happy Days” from being one of the highest rated television shows in 1977. It certainly didn’t hurt Ron Howard’s career. And Henry Winkler continues to make movies 40 years later (I loved him in "Here Comes the Boom”). “Scandal” appears to be doing just fine; South by Southwest hasn’t canceled 2015; and millions of people will be enjoying quinoa tonight. And many of our greatest innovators jumped the shark at some point in their careers. Thomas Edison went through thousands of prototypes before inventing the light bulb. After Napster “failed,” Sean Parker went on to billionaire status working with companies like Facebook. And Steve Jobs had several failures before Apple.
On some level, all of these people understood that reward only comes from risk. They utilized failure as an opportunity on which to build future success. So, we would all be better off if the term “Jump the Shark” marked a moment of creative excess—perhaps going too far and needing to be reeled in - rather than a sign of a hopeless failure. After all, we need to jump the shark from time to time in order to do great things.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Mike Friedman @ DrMikeFriedman and EHE on Twitter @EHEintl.