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Colin Johnson’s blog

Entrepreneurship and the Fetishisation of Failure

The amount of successful experience required before a practitioner can regard themselves as basically accomplished varies vastly from field to field. A professor needs to have published a few dozen papers, an actor taken on a few dozen roles, before they are regarded as established. Sure, there is the occasional exception—the brilliant theorem proven in a PhD thesis, the definitive performance given by a 20-year old—but, for most people, there is room enough for a few apprentice-works followed by a track record of decent achievement.

Other areas require fewer individual projects before the practitioner is regarded as basically successful. A novelist who has published a couple of books is regarded as part of the mainstream, a parent who has brought up a couple of children isn’t regarded as an amateur. This is largely due to the scale of these achievements—doing them a couple of times takes a lot of time, and the number of people who have a track-record of 50 novels or 20 children is rare and regarded as somewhat freakish.

One area where this reaches its apogee is in entrepreneurship. I recently went to a—very good—talk on entrepreneurship by someone whose track record was two failed businesses and a current business that was struggling to get off the ground. Are there any other areas where such a track record would be considered enough for people to come and hear you speak?

There is almost a fetishisation of failure in the entrepreneurship culture. Talks on the subject often include something along the lines of “anyone who hasn’t had a couple of failed businesses isn’t a proper entrepreneur”. There is substance to this—statistics are regularly trotted out that some large percent of businesses fail within some small number of months—so, the point isn’t an irrelevant one. Yet, I worry about the consequences.

In areas where failure is small in impact, being upbeat about early failure is unproblematic. When I was learning to juggle, I was told that “a drop is a sign of progress”, with the implication that I should be pushing harder to do more complex moves and not always stay conservatively within my current capabilities. Similarly, I try to reassure PhD students that a rejected paper is fine. I am sure that the same is true in many other areas: there are many stories of novelists or scriptwriters figuratively, or perhaps literally, wallpapering their houses with rejection slips.

However, in these areas the consequences of failure are minor. A novelist can submit their book to another publisher, an actor can attend another audition. Note that this doesn’t always correlate to the scale of the work created: a novel, once written, can readily be touted round a dozen publishers. But in entrepreneurship the cost of failure can be large.

This is where there might be a class bias in entrepreneurship education. Perhaps the talk of failure isn’t offputting to the potential entrepreneur from a financially secure background—the worse that can happen is a slightly embarassing cap-in-hand return to family for support. Whilst, for the financially insecure, the risk of “having a go” at a business is potentially threatening to that person’s financial and personal stability for many years afterwards.

What could entrepreneurship education do about this? This is a difficult question. We would not want to downplay the potential risk of failure, as it is real and there is little in the way of definitive guidance as to how to prevent it. Perhaps more advice could be given as to how to isolate the business risks from personal risks; after all, a business failure need not lead to lead to personal financial ruin if the business is set up in the correct way. What other ideas might there be to encourage a wider range of people into starting innovative and exciting businesses?

2 Responses to “Entrepreneurship and the Fetishisation of Failure”

  1. colingj says:

    Here is an example of the sort of thing I was talking about: Why I Hire People Who Fail.

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