Saturday, March 1, 2014

Entrepreneurism and the Failure Society

To succeed, you must fail.

It is almost a mantra now, an assumed truth of our scattered, struggling culture.  Our goal, and the highest value, is entrepreneurism.  Because entrepreneurs?  They are the great heroes of global capitalism, the ones worth emulating, the ones we all strive to be.  They have this amazing idea, this striking insight, one that changes the dynamic of a particular industry.  They win, and win big, and upon them are lavished fame and acclaim and billions.

And yes, this does happen.

To make this happen, we are told, you must be willing to fail.  Success does not come right away.  It comes after you fail, and you fail, and you fail, and then you fail again.  You must keep failing, until finally that magic moment occurs, the stars align, and you go viral, and you nail it.

Success means failure.

That's the goal, the ground of countless TED talks and gurupreneurial books and blog posts and seminars.  It's such a baseline value now that we do not even question it.  And without question, there is truth in it.  I know this, quite inescapably so, as a writer.  Writing, like all creative endeavor, is nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine parts failure, and one part success.  Or maybe a half-part.  I'll let you know when I find out.

Or, at least, the acclaim is.  The writing itself, the actual activity, is more often a joy.   It's inherently good.  The "getting your novel published and made into a major motion picture that wins an Oscar, at which time Jennifer Lawrence tearily thanks you for a book that like totally changed her life?"  That happens rather less often, to the point of being functionally never.

And even though I love to write, some of it ain't exactly Tolstoy.  There are plenty of blog posts that never see the light of day.  Oh, Lord, I'll say.  That's really lousy.  Delete, and out it goes.

So as we strive, we have come to accept failure as a necessary part of the creative endeavor.  If you do not risk failure, you cannot achieve.

This is all well and good.  It is a truth we accept.  And I do, too, up to a point.  Perseverence is a worthy value, as is patience.  A willingness to strive and risk is a necessary part of a vibrant existence.

But I wonder, in the way that I do about things, whether or not mixed into the reality being shaped by this saying is more darkness than we'd care to admit.  Every saying has its shadow, after all.

Because "To succeed, you must fail" can sound like a Zen koan.  It can also sound Orwellian.

If we have been taught that we must be willing to fail most of the time, in most of our efforts, then we will be more willing to look at a society in which most people are failing most of the time and shrug it off.  We will have our efforts crash and burn and be frustrated over and over again, and just assume that's the way it must be.

Of course I'm struggling, we say.  I'm failing, because I have to, because that's what entrepreneurs do.

Yet I can remember a time when it was not so.  I can remember working as a stock clerk in a little shop, and bringing home enough income so that my fianc√© and I could pay the rent, eat out, and have some left over to save.  I did not "fail" at that.  I did not expect to.  Work did not involve endless struggle and failure.  It was work.  It paid the bills, and life wasn't flashy, but neither were we anxious.

If most of us are failing, then perhaps a failure-embracing society is a sign that we aren't doing it right.

Who does this saying serve?  If the world around us feels creative and joyous, it serves us well.  It teaches the value of work, and of patience, and of stick-to-itiveness in the face of inevitable adversity.  It reminds us not to be entitled.

But if most of us are failing, then this saying only serves the interests of those who hold power and wealth.