Failure Is Not an Option

Is the slogan “failure is not an option!” realistic?

Failure is not an option! That’s the battle cry of the entrepreneur.

But if “failure is not an option,” what happens if you fail? The Small Business Administration (SBA) keeps the stats on business failures and claims that more than half of new businesses will disappear in the first five years. I believe that’s a conservative estimate, since there are surely countless numbers of small companies started in spare bedrooms that launch and fail without ever reaching the radar of the SBA. I’ve done a couple of those myself.

Yet I still hear that common assertion from the new wide-eyed entrepreneur: “Failure is not an option!” So what do you do if you’ve decided that failure is not an option? Do you commit suicide when you end up among the majority of start-ups that crash? A small percentage of entrepreneurs actually take this grim avenue. I wouldn’t recommend it. I think a wise entrepreneur needs to have plenty of options, including failure.

There are a gazillion stories of failed entrepreneurs who came back from a disastrous failure only to dust off the battered suit and try another business launch, then finding stunning success. The most-often repeated story of failure followed by more persistence is Thomas Edison’s tale of 2,000 failed attempts at creating an effective light bulb that preceded his success. I’m sure his family was convinced he suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In our contemporary world, his loved ones would certainly push him into therapy.

A successful business of often preceded by failure, sometimes serial failure. So when I hear the phrase, “failure is not an option,” I wonder what will happen if the business collapses, especially since many of the reasons a business crumbles are out of the hands of the entrepreneur.  

Let’s get Taoist for a moment. You do everything you can think of to make your business succeed. You open a small restaurant in lower Manhattan in August, 2001. Then, 9/11 comes along. You’re gone. Or suppose you launched a bronze statue business in Baghdad last fall? What can you say about failure under those circumstances? That failure’s not an option?

The “failure is not an option” crowd insists that if you allow failure into your consciousness you doom yourself to it. I think this is the same bunch who visits you in the hospital after you break your leg and ask, “What is it you that you needed from this experience?” Some new entrepreneurs seem to believe that reality is little more than the projection of will. Thus, if they commit to the belief that “failure is not an option,” they will not fail. That’s like standing in the middle of Baghdad chanting “ I am safe, I am safe” instead of ducking behind a strong bunker.

Businesses are launched and they fail or succeed in a world that truly seems impervious to the projection of willfulness no matter how intensely focused that determination may be. Yet this same world is not impervious to repeated attempts to get it right. The world is especially pliable for those determined to succeed no matter how many failures it takes, given a willingness to learn from each failure.

I’ve often suspected the slogan, “failure is not an option,” reveals a rigidity that is incompatible with the continual growth and adaptation that is essential to a successful entrepreneur. For the restaurateur in lower Manhattan who finds that 9/11 has destroyed the dining traffic, why not run inexpensive lunches to the rescue workers and on-lookers at Ground Zero? For the Baghdad statue maker, surely there’s some reconstruction work coming up.

The U.S. bankruptcy laws were wisely devised with the understanding that our society is served when failed entrepreneurs are given another chance. Failure, even serial failure, can be the first stage of a very successful journey. Those who place power in the idea of failure is not an option, may see their business collapse without allowing themselves the deep lessons that come from a business disaster. Success often comes to those willing to keep coming back, albeit a little bit smarter each time.


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