Scott Sandage, associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, is an expert on failure. His 2006 book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America was an Editor’s Choice for The Atlantic, and won the 34th annual Thomas J. Wilson Prize, given to the best book to debut with Harvard University Press each year.
This Wednesday’s episode of TLC celebrity-genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? will see Sandage utilizing his particular expertise to help Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson learn about his family history.
In particular, Sandage was consulted for the case of Ferguson’s great-grandfather, a Gilded Age grifter dogged by misfortune.
“Jesse’s ancestor had a real knack for getting in trouble,” Sandage says, “but also for convincing people to help him out when he was embezzling money, or leading ill-fated trips to the Klondike, or even being accused of murder.”
So while he might not have been a total failure, this distant relative of Ferguson’s certainly was involved with his share of bizarre and hapless schemes.
The producers of the show wanted someone with expertise in researching the lives of American with checkered careers, to help clear up the ambiguities they had stumbled upon in research and to put their subject’s failure into a historical context.
But what makes these characters so fascinating? Why devote precious airtime to someone so easily described as a failure?
“Although Americans will readily admit that they want success, in our heart of hearts we fear failure,” says Sandage. “I just thought it was time someone got to the bottom of not just our obsession with success but also our fear of failure.”
Similarly curious viewers can catch the episode as it premieres this Wed., July 30, at 9 p.m. on TLC. More information about the program and upcoming episodes can be found here.