Failure and success; if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right….

“Entrepreneurship is a zig-zag, everyone fails, it’s learning from the experience that counts” (Panel member, Warwick Business School seminar on Entrepreneurial Failure, 4/2/14).

It seems to me, in my experience as an entrepreneur and as a researcher, that we recognise that though success and failure are two very different things they are part of the same coin; one seen to be desired and the other to be avoided. In exploring this topic I am wondering if we are really asking the right questions.

Should we really focus solely on how we can hope to be more successful and how we can aim to avoid failure? If success and failure are equal partners that must co-exist in the entrepreneurial landscape, then what really is the secret of entrepreneurial success? Or, what is the secret of successful entrepreneurial endeavour?

As the quote suggests, perhaps the secret to successful entrepreneurial endeavour is to overcome the fear of failure, realise that failure is the best teacher there is, and that we must accept and embrace it is an undeniably permanent part of the entrepreneurial experience.

However, failure is not pleasant; in fact it is often, as I can attest to, deeply painful. So if we are to experience failure, and have a desire to learn from it, it is vital that we properly understand what failure is and how it affects us. Whether our failures are small non-critical yet embarrassing fails, or the fundamental termination of a venture, they have great importance in shaping, guiding and developing us as entrepreneurs.

Failure is hard.

Even if it is a small and non-terminal, admitting failure, will always evoke our emotions. It will involve acknowledging that we did not meet the mark, that we were not good enough, that we could have done better and yet, we failed… Possibly we may be overly hard on ourselves or we might, on reflection, realise it wasn’t in fact all down to us, (narcissists that we are). Conversely we may have to accept it was more our fault than we care to admit or even, that this time, it simply wasn’t anyone’s fault but our own.

However, if we are all honest, we have to admit that failure is, in fact, quite common among humans. Thankfully it is something we all experience; to be human is, at times, to fail. We all, and perhaps entrepreneurs in particular, would do well to remember this.

We can then work to accept this and not shy away from experiencing and talking about failure because the other thing we need to be honest and clear about is that the emotional pain of failure is real. It really does hurt us personally, and those we work and live with. This pain needs to be acknowledged and given space to be felt and expressed and then, and only then, can we approach the reality of the failing and do something awesome…

We can learn. We don’t learn from our mistakes without honest frank acknowledgement of them, and this requires the pain to be experienced first. However, whether it be a minor balls up, or a cataclysmic catastrophe, there is learning in there, valuable and potentially deep, learning.

When we, as entrepreneurs, can revisit, reflect on and make sense of our failure, explore what could have been different and how we are now different, then that is when failure becomes our most powerful ally in helping to prepare us for other eventualities that emerge along our personal journeys. Entrepreneurship and learning require failure, it is inescapable, so we must individually and together embrace this and learn how to better use and make sense of this important part of the entrepreneurial process.

If we accept and share in this reality we can also help, support and share the pain of failing together, which, in my experience, makes a big difference indeed.

Toby Lindsay is a Researcher for the Centre for Employment, Competitiveness and Growth, and serial Entrepreneur, and holds a personal interest in entrepreneurial learning and failure…

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