Many successful entrepreneurs will tell you not to fear failure, but to embrace it. Is failure not the antithesis of success?
For the past two years, part of my job has been to interview entrepreneurs: Learning about their product and business and hearing their “success story” was the primary objective so I could effectively profile them. But, I wanted to know more than just the facts. I really wanted to know what makes them tick. What mindset or approach to life enables someone to come up with an idea and then develop that idea until it becomes a successful business?
I have interviewed dozens of successful entrepreneurs. Of course, no two stories are the same, but one surprising theme has come up again and again. Many of them have spontaneously told me that one of the most important things in their development was the freedom they gave themselves to fail. Most of us avoid failure and it is high on our list of fears. For some reason, many successful entrepreneurs don’t fear failure, or at least they have embraced the chance of failure as a driver, and even as a positive if it happens to them. This was mind opening for me to hear.
One of our Network’d entrepreneurs told me that his mentor encouraged him to fail twice before he was 30. “He actually said to declare bankruptcy twice before I turned 30,” Quarter Zero CEO, Josh Collins said. Josh has surpassed the age of 30 seemingly without a big failure or bankruptcy, but his company has embraced this concept. Their business teaches high school students the basics of business, and their motto is, “Fail fast.” They don’t set their students up for failure; instead they teach them the same mindset that Josh’s mentor fostered. Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn from failure. You will be better prepared to succeed if you fail fast and restart then to never have failed at all.
Maybe it isn’t necessary to fail, but there’s something to be said about the mindset of staring down failure. Maybe it’s the challenge or the pressure of failure that propels the entrepreneur. Psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset explains the science of mindset and how humans can make use of it in their lives.
Dweck presented a series of puzzles to children that became progressively more challenging. She anticipated a response of frustration and abandonment when ten-year-olds were introduced with increasingly difficult tasks and eventual failure. To her surprise, some responded with excitement and pleasure when they eventually did not succeed! Maybe some people are able to face risk and failure better than others. Those are the ones that intuitively thrive on it. And perhaps we can instill some of these traits into people. Perhaps we can develop them in ourselves. It isn’t just overcoming the fear of failure that I am talking about. There are a lot of psychological approaches to dealing with our fears. This is a step beyond. This is smiling and enjoying the concept of failure. It’s all a bit odd to me, but I think there is something to it.
I don’t know any ten-year-old entrepreneurs but I have met many successful adult entrepreneurs with a very similar reaction to the idea of potential failure. Some seem almost giddy to talk about failure. Others even seem to approach the subject with a kind of reverence. I noticed a theme when I first heard Quarter Zero’s motto “Fail fast.” I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs have told me, “Don’t fear failure.” But every time I hear it I find myself asking, “Do they really mean that?” In this same vein, thirty-two-year-old Liquid I.V. CEO Brandin Cohen told me, “You know you’re on the verge of a breakthrough when you reach your breaking point.” Inside I say, “Seriously? Maybe I am not cut out for this.” Or, maybe I need to find a way to embrace this mindset.
The late Jeffry A. Timmons, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Author of New Venture Creation wrote, “Businesses fail, but entrepreneurs do not. Failure is often the fire that tempers the steel of an entrepreneur’s learning and street savvy.” Twenty years after those words were published, the statement still holds true. But it’s not just that failure makes you stronger; it seems that your mindset about failure can free you to succeed. It is starting to sink in for me in an intellectual way, but it seems a bit like learning to swim by reading about it on the internet. At some point I’m going to have to jump into the pool. I will let you know if I learn to embrace failure like so many successful entrepreneurs have. I’ll race you to the deep end!