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We are all witnesses … to failure and success
June 2010
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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For the last five years, he has presided over the entrance to Cleveland's main artery. Towering 110 feet above Ontario Street in a billboard with his powerful arms stretched skyward, Cleveland Cavalier and NBA MVP LeBron James beckons locals and visitors to C-Town with an invitation borrowed from Nike's ongoing ad campaign: "We are all witnesses."

If you have been near a television or computer in the last month, you have borne witness to the latest chapter in Cleveland's sad pro sports saga: On May 13, after finishing with the NBA's best record for the second season, the king and company suffered a devastating loss to the Boston Celtics, failing to reach the NBA finals—or to quench Cleveland's 46-year sports championship drought.

While we wait with bated breath to learn whether our hometown hero, who is now a free agent, will choose to stick it out in the Cleve or allow himself to be wooed by other top-contending teams, many local and national observers have chosen to travel down the familiar path of hysteria. In one of the more sorrowful pity-party pieces I have read, Plain Dealer writer Dennis Manoloff proclaimed that the "Cavaliers' failures are something that could only happen in Cleveland."

Clearly, Cleveland is doomed, and should James skip town for the Big Apple, it will be the final nail in our city's coffin. We'll never recover from this crushing blow, and we should all flee to warmer, more competitive pastures before the smoke clears at ground zero. And then, we should blame it all on James.

With all due respect to James' talent and accolades, when you strip away the glitz and glamor, his job is to put a basketball through a hoop. That's hardly the stuff of which a stable economy, respected academic community and competitive workforce is made.

If you'll link arms with me and take what may seem like a strange comparative leap, we have seen this sort of misguided frustration in the pharma community, too. Many times, we have witnessed a large pharma fall victim to nature and science with a late-phase trial failure, or reports of adverse effects from a drug that made a difference in the lives of all but 1 percent of patients, and the ensuing criticism and condemnation. Case in point: When Pfizer Inc. recently announced the end of a late-stage clinical study of its drug Sutent as a treatment for liver cancer, more than one analyst heralded the news as "another Pfizer pfailure."

While it's tempting for analysts and writers to dog-pile on a particular company—or even an entire industry—for falling short of our expectations, it's important that we learn from these mistakes and figure out a way to overcome them. We must each search within ourselves for the answers needed to solve problems, help others and make a difference. We must not blame those who are taking the risks inherent in achieving those solutions for the failure of an entire community. We in Cleveland—and you, the researchers, scientists and tool providers in the pharmaceutical arena—must accept that the road to success is paved with many potholes, and we're each responsible for fixing them.

Hysteria and worshiping false idols will get us nowhere. LeBron James, for all the awe he inspires in Clevelanders and sports fans around the country, is not the cure for what ails Cleveland, any more than Pfizer's recent setback is indicative of problems to come from its entire pipeline.

Above all, we must make better use of our time, energy and priorities—focusing not on negative outcomes, but asking the questions that will lead us to results we seek. After the Cavs' heartbreaking loss, I posed this question to fellow Clevelanders: If we put as much faith in ourselves as we do in one professional basketball player, what sort of impact could we make on our city? Certainly, we can tap into that faith to lead us to a brighter future—and not expect a 25-year-old guy who wears sneakers to work to do it for us.

Winston Churchill once said, "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." It's been 46 years, so why quit now? As we say in Cleveland, "there's always next year."


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