Michelle writes for The Huffington Post - Why Are We So Afraid of Failure as UK Entrepreneurs?

15th December, 2014

This blog was originally written for The Huffington Post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure recently. Over the years, I shudder to think about how much time I have wasted worrying about whether I have failed a test or haven’t done ‘well enough’. And when I did fail something, like my first driving test for example, it undoubtedly only served to make me a better driver in the end. The angst of worrying about the failure was pointless.

In the teaching that I do with start up entrepreneurs the sense of being judged or worried about failing is palpable from day one. Indeed, if I ask a direct question about what isn’t going well, I may as well have asked to know their bank balance and pin number! But in asking this more negative question, I’m not trying to catch the entrepreneurs out or to trip them up. In fact my main motivation is far less Machiavellian; I simply want to know what learning there has been.

There is much that the entrepreneur can learn from elite sports. Through intensive work with sports psychologists, sportspeople often have a greater understanding of their own personal psychology, which in turn leads to greater mental strength and a higher level of resilience. Intelligence isn’t fixed, innate or unchangeable – but mindset can be. The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about this as a fixed versus a growth mindset. She concludes that success and failure are determined more by what the individual understands about himself or herself – rather than some pre-determined life-course that is the result of genetic programming.

Alarmingly, a fixed failure mindset often happens very early on in childhood. You hear regularly of the student that thinks that they are tone deaf and won’t ever sing; yet it was probably a parent or teacher with a fixed mindset that made that perception a reality. In contrast, a more flexible mindset teaches students that they have some control over their destiny by how they learn, think and approach tasks. Failure is part of the learning process, rather than an end in itself, and it’s from this standpoint that singing stars are born.

In the US, the concept of the ‘fail’ conference has become more and more popular with initiatives such as www.failcon.com. Failure is not only seen as a badge of honour for the entrepreneur community but is also seen as something that others can learn from. Indeed, for the US investor, serious questions are raised about the entrepreneur that isn’t prepared to admit to their failures alongside their successes.

So when you’ve been conditioned to fear failure is it possible to recondition yourself? Indeed, according to Start Up Britain Founder and entrepreneur Michael Hayman, it’s this very fear of failure that unites the UK’s Entrepreneur community. Indeed, why else would entrepreneurs put in the relentless hours and make the sacrifices that are part and parcel of life as a start-up founder?

So as we deal with the gloomy statistics that over half of new businesses in the UK fail in the first five years, what can we learn if we encourage entrepreneurs to be more open about failure?

  • Learning – My very wise coach said to me that rather than beating myself up when things go wrong – I should instead focus on what I’m learning. It’s a remarkably simple trick and makes sense. If we constantly focus on the cup half empty then we lose the positive energy and focus that might in fact help us succeed.
  • Hiring – as Jim Collins noted in his book Good To Great, “start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” Most entrepreneurs I know have lengthy battle stories of bad hires and poor restructures and it’s true that with limited resources that finding the right people is one of the most difficult challenges that a new entrepreneur faces. But again if the focus is on learning through experience rather than failure, then recruitment practices and the right hires can only get better over time, and an open learning culture is anyway more attractive to recruit people into.
  •  You gain experience yourself – there is nothing like having been there and done it that accelerates learning. Studying what works and doesn’t work in a classroom or text book is not the same as being at the coalface when things go wrong. In failing my driving test I needed to develop the skills in driving that would make me a half-way competent driver, I could only do that by learning the hard way.
  • We move to Plan B – For the entrepreneur that wants their enterprise to grow fast, a growth mindset is essential. Start ups often need to pivot quickly, and moving to Plan B without being stuck on an original idea is vital. Successful small businesses are nimble and a quick move to Plan B can be the difference between failure and success.

So I’m painfully learning to recognize that rather than fearing failure, it’s a type of freedom – and most definitely isn’t fatal. It seems that the strongest determinant for success for an entrepreneur is not about never failing, but being resilient and learning quickly when things do go wrong.

As UK founders we need to approach our roles with a growth mindset and not be so terrified of failing, after all, what is the worst that can really happen?

“Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy has changed the game for arts fundraising as Clore did for leadership.”

Phil Gibby, Director Arts Council England, South West