The following is an edited excerpt taken from Entresutra, on the shoulders of foxes: A hedgehog on entrepreneurship and motivation, authored by Soumodip Sarkar. The excerpt is published courtesy of Bloomsbury.
Paeans to failure are no longer limited to motivational talks but are increasingly appearing in management journals as well as in business seminars and highbrow management conferences.
Are we stepping close to the danger zone of overhyping and glorifying failure, and in some way, even demanding failure?
One study from the Harvard Business School found that when it came to venture-backed entrepreneurship, the only experience that really counted was success. The authors of the study found that by contrast, first-time entrepreneurs have only a 21 percent chance of succeeding and entrepreneurs who previously failed have a 22 percent chance of succeeding. However, already successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to succeed again.
While to err is human, the key question becomes whether we are indeed learning from our screw-ups? Are there those among us who make a conscious attempt to pay attention and learn from our mistakes?
How to fail smart
These were precisely the questions that a group of five psychologists of the Michigan State University (MSU) went out to investigate. The results of their research, which were published in 2011 in the journal Psychological Science, are quite revealing, offering clues to who among us are more apt to learn from mistakes.
[pushquote]For individuals with a growth mindset mistakes were seen as opportunities to learn and improve[/pushquote]
The tests revealed that participants who had a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes.
For individuals with a growth mindset, that is those who believe intelligence develops through effort, mistakes were seen as opportunities to learn and improve. For individuals with a fixed mindset, believing intelligence growth mindset to be a stable characteristic, mistakes indicate a lack of personal ability.
What’s the danger of anti-failure?
There lurks an even bigger danger of not being malleable enough, of not having a growth mindset. That danger is when we are in situations that do not appear as failure, existing in a comfort zone of anti-failure.
[pushquote]Being ‘slightly successful’ can lull us into a sense that we are moving in the right direction[/pushquote]
Being “slightly successful” or “not failing”, i.e. being in the anti-failure zone, can lull us into a sense that we are moving in the right direction—if only we strive harder, then we would strike pay dirt.
Small successes and its counter image, “not-failure”, can be a trap where we can dwell for long stretches at a time, always hoping that things would work out, and we would eventually reach the “absolute success” end of the spectrum. This middle ground of anti-failure is a comfort zone which can condemn us to a “comfortable mediocrity”. Worse still, not being exposed to failure can lull us into thinking that we are successful, and as the 19th century British Publisher H G Bonn wisely remarked, “Success makes a fool seem wise.”
That is why complete failure may sometimes actually be good and even desirable, especially when small successes lull one into feeling comfortable.
Staring at the despairing face of the rock bottom can be the jolt, a trigger to ask fundamental questions, rethink strategies, and strive in new directions. Being slightly successful can often be actually dangerous and one may never be able to achieve truly great things.
Most typical small enterprises actually operate in the anti-failure zone of neither obvious successes nor failures. A look at the data from the OECD Entrepreneurship Indicators Program reveals that the probability of a new firm surviving after five years, i.e. the five-year persistence rate, is just over 50 percent.
This reality of getting by, without having to endure acute hardships or a feeling of an obvious sense of winning, is a comfort zone that can lure the best of us and the smartest entrepreneur into thinking that one is on the right track. While success can lead to hubris and eventual decline, staring at the rock bottom can jolt one into asking hard questions and rethinking the entire operation.
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