The Positives of Entrepreneurial Failure.
What is failure? Non-entrepreneurs might define it negatively as something to be avoided at all costs. To the entrepreneur however, failure may be any one of the following positive experiences: a prerequisite to success, a chanced discovery, a profound teacher, a future value-adder, a provider of new direction, an enhanced motivator, a path to achievement and even as a relieving liberator. Maybe we need to see what the entrepreneur sees and re-think and re-define what failure really is. This article sets out to do just that …
Entrepreneurial – success and failure
Given the choice between success and failure, we would not be human if we did not have a rather strong bias for the former and an equally strong wish to avoid the pain of the latter. But what if Thomas J. Watson
, the founder IBM
, was right when he argued that failure was actually a prerequisite to success.
Today, thousands of experiments were conducted in research laboratories around the world, each experiment hoping to find a solution to their problem. How many of them failed in this endeavor? – Answer 99.99%. How many scientists will come back tomorrow for another attempt? – Answer 99.99%. This is because these scientists know and accept that experiments fail so that the research doesn’t and that every great successful scientific discovery first had to endure long periods of failure.
Now a cursory study of many of the past and present successful entrepreneurs reveals a prior history of what the ill-informed may call failure but what the entrepreneur
themselves call research, because on the issue of failure these entrepreneurs hold the same mind-set as the scientists.
When asked about these past failures Walt Disney said;
“You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you” .
Henry Ford explained it like this;
“Life is a series of experience, each of which makes us stronger even though it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and griefs which we endure help us in our marching onward.”
They understood that both success and failure were simply tools required of a supreme sculptor to create a person of worth.
The last word here is given to the poet, Rudyard Kipling
, who in his poem titled “IF’, described to his son the attitude of a man of character;
It was the poet’s view that both success and failure were nothing more than just different life experiences and should be treated equally as such. 
“One pre-requisites of failure, is unbridled success” PB
Why then is entrepreneurial failure such a big deal?
Three things cause failure to be such a big issues in our lives;
(1) our natural desire to avoid pain at all costs
(2) our paralyzing fear of the unknown and
(3) the perceived link between failure and our self esteem (that feeling good about ourselves).
Only the most self-inflicting person wants to continually fail, the rest of us may accommodate it on occasions but only if it ultimately lead us to a better place (success).
You have seen the sign in the gym and those that have been there will begrudgingly agree, but it’s the truth – “No pain – No gain”.
Taking those muscles to the point of failure is the pre-requisite to making them stronger.
“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed”.
His argument could be rephrased in that the greatest mistake anyone can make is to never put yourself in a position to make one.
Now fear of failure may feel real and be quite natural for us humans, but fear is not always rational, for the ten outcomes that reality can deliver, fear sees one hundred. This fear is a mutation of our primeval instinct for survival. But, if survival is life’s chief prize – then surly, failure awaits us all, because no one has yet achieved immortality. So, why give this instinct such a disproportional weight.
Entrepreneurs understand and accept that fear and cowardice are permanent advisers to every decision. They know that fear is normal, yet they bravely go ahead and do it anyway. They have come to rationalize that the debilitating fear of being wrong limits the number of things they can ever be right about. So they act contrary to fear’s visions, for fear of what they might lose and they accept that in the exciting, absorbing life of discovery and adventure there can be no respite from mistakes. Entrepreneurs know better than most that when fear of failure rules, insignificance succeeds.
One limitation of my research lab metaphor is that whilst the scientist fails in private, the entrepreneur fails on an open public stage. Add to this public failure the fact that sadly, most people are none so happy as when their ‘friend’ fails and you have the makings of a direct attack on one’s self esteem. These ‘friends’ are mostly those self-righteous, insipid and colorless folk that have tasted neither failure nor success for themselves. So, don’t pay them any mind, for those that have never risked failure know deep down inside that they are.
Now those that have ‘been there and done it’ know that the entrepreneurial journey is reserved for the strong as James Allen
, the 19th century British philosophical writer, points out:
“To begin to think with purpose, is to enter the ranks of those strong ones who only recognize failure as one of the pathways to attainment”.
Attainment or self-actualization is what the entrepreneur is all about.
According to Abraham Maslow
, an American psychologist, self-actualization is the highest human attainment and he describes it as the fulfillment by our own hand, of the possibilities of our character and embracing a deep desire to rise above rather than simply cope with our environment. Given this possibility, is it any wonder that entrepreneurs are prepared to trade some potential loss of self esteem from their failed attempts to satisfy this highest human need of self-actualization.
“Failures are just the resting platforms strategically positioned on our staircase to self-actualization” PB
Entrepreneurial – ‘Trial & error’
Anyone who has attempted to make anything has experienced it – a successful outcome born from a process of ‘trial and error’. While we don’t always reflect back on it, the error bit of this approach was actually a failure. This is because the fear, loss of self esteem and desire to avoid failure are all forgotten and are soon swallowed up in the successful outcome.
Now if we can accept the ‘trial & error’ approach in cooking, sport, games, creative art & music, writing, building, then why not accept it on the entrepreneurial journey as well. The principle is the same – failure is never fatal, it’s just part of the process. For failure is never an outcome from striving – it is not so much ‘success and failure’ but ‘success and experience'; ‘success and review'; ‘success and correction’.
Sports people know that if you get it right when it matters, then it does not really matter how many times you got it wrong in practice. Failed entrepreneurs also believe that the past was just practice and that the time when it will matter most is still ahead. They know that their ‘try and fail’, will eventually lead to their ‘try and succeed’.
Anyway, the entrepreneur’s call is not the management of existing and known worlds but rather to create those new and innovative worlds that are not yet currently known.
So, research has only a limited value to the entrepreneur, because for them the ‘trial & failure’ approach affords the only realistic approach to these unknown worlds. The world would be a far poorer place indeed if we had not in the past accommodated the concept of failure as a pathway to making things better for today.
Take the inventor, Thomas Edison’s
view of failure “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
Like all entrepreneurs and innovators, he could see the great positives in failure.
“Regrettably, the guinea pig in the experiments of truth, is your own life” PB
Regret – the real life failure
It may surprise many to know that entrepreneurs
are acutely fearful of failure, in fact it is one of their most powerful motivators – but not the type of failure outlined above.
The kind of researching and experimental failure they fully accept and understand it to be a prerequisite to success, a chance for discovery, a profound teacher, a future value-adder, a provider of new direction, an enhanced motivator, a path to achievement and even as a relieving liberator. As Michael Jordan
, the famed American basketball player states
“ I know fear is an obstacle for some people, but it is an illusion to me . . . Failure always made me try harder next time”
No, the failure that entrepreneurs fear the most is a ‘life of regret’ 
. That is, a regret
- created by those cowardly life choices that squanders its opportunities.
- of a life existence that fearfully hides within its paltry limitations and never explores the possibilities of its talents and gifts.
- of a life lived … but without significance.
Louis Boone, an American academic author, continues the thought with his instructions
“Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. For the saddest summary of a life is contained in three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.”
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune;
Omitted, and all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries”.
Given the choice, entrepreneurs would rather the title ‘has-been’ over ‘might-have-been’. They would take the healed scars of failure anytime over the cancerous decay of regret. They accept that mistakes are just steps in the process and that the real failure in life is in refusing to take the next step.
The entrepreneur rationalizes that there is more to be lost from never trying than the failure of having a go. For them, only this failure is without redemption – “To have never tried”.
“Courageous people don’t have regrets – just different life experiences” PB
Redefining failure – an entrepreneurial perspective
The entrepreneur is the person that answers the call to align their life with the greats, accepting if fate so decrees, to be the failed combatant, bloodied and bruised in the arena of life than to stand as a fashionable critic in the lofty and protected surrounds of the stands with those timid cowardly folk that have tasted neither failure nor victory.
The key to redefining failure from an entrepreneur’s perspective is to view it in a child-like, almost playful way as the greats of the past have done with the likes Freud
, Graham, and Gandhi
all acknowledging this attribute as a foundation for their creative work. The creative entrepreneur also chooses to live with this mind-set which is summarized by this statement – “A past without regret, a future without fear and living at all times within an exploitable present”.
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simply really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure, or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that’s where you’ll find success.” Tom Watson
I’m with Tom Watson … how about you?
These days Peter Baskerville
likes to call himself a New Venture Architect. This is because he is keen to impart the knowledge and insights he has gained from establishing over 13 new ventures (involving over 30 outlets) to help budding entrepreneurs of today design and build successful new ventures.
As a teacher, mentor and coach to hundreds of ‘real world’ new venture intenders, Peter now wishes to share his expertise with the millions of intenders scattered across the globe who have been brought together via the medium of the internet. He has contributed many works on entrepreneurship here on Knol
and on other content publishing platforms. He fully intends to continue expanding this body of work as well as provide value-added resources via his website, designed to help people start and succeed in their own business.