Biz Features

Where Are All The Failure Stories? – How The Serially Successful See Setbacks

by . May 7th, 2012

Everybody loves a winner. Perhaps more importantly, everybody wants to be one. Conventional wisdom dictates that if you want to succeed, it helps to learn how successful people did things. Stories about the disgustingly successful make you think anything’s possible. And it’s true… up to a point.

A Winner is You
Source: Nintendo Pro Wrestling (NES)

Recent estimates of small business failure rates lie anywhere from 33%-85% after the first year, depending on the state, and depending on who you ask. Does everything seem so possible now?

The truth is probably impossible to pin down in anything other than a general way. The difficulty in getting precise figures is partly because people and regulatory bodies do not necessarily define success and failure in the same way.

For instance, a business might be counted as a failure even if it earned a decent revenue and just decided to close shop, as happens to a lot of small businesses. Some businesses might be declared failures for not recovering their initial capital after some arbitrarily defined period.

High expectations Asian Father

Whether you choose to believe the numbers on the optimistic or pessimistic side isn’t the point. Even a one-in-three chance of failure after the first year presents a significant number. But go to any online message board or conversation thread about small business and you’ll find all of them chock-full of feel-good tales of success, you probably will likely have a hard time finding stories about failure – certainly not at a 1 to 3 ratio.

Why? In our experience, successful entrepreneurs regard failure and success in a way totally different way- but we’ll get to that later.

Why are we afraid of failing anyway?

We love success stories- we’ve even posted a few of them. American Culture in particular is all about winning. As it should be, because it’s a huge part of why the much of the world, even parts that hate it, look towards America for inspiration.

Every...DAMNED... TIME!!!
Source: MS Minesweeper (obviously)

Unfortunately we have attached an unnecessarily harsh stigma to failing. Unfortunate because failure teaches us a lot more than success. It’s through failure that you find out exactly what you could or should do differently.

If you just read success stories to make yourself feel better, or because you just like alliterations, that’s nice and all- but in all likelihood it won’t do much good. Except maybe for your morale. The real learning comes from finding out what you and others did wrong. Wouldn’t you feel like a major asshat if you made a basic mistake you could have avoided?

Besides, people who succeed, do so within their own contexts- as do people who fail. If you’re serious- truly serious- about making it as an entrepreneur, you have to look at why something didn’t succeed so you won’t make the same mistakes. And if you do make a mistake, great – now you know better! Not everyone can say the same.

I Don’t Mean To Toot My Horn But… *TOOT!*

And in any case, a lot of success stories are bloated way out of context. As we discussed in a previous article, many successes were contingent on pure dumb luck. You can and should probably bust your ass and work as well as you could for one. But some things you just can’t control.

You can and should try to change your luck by working smart -but you can’t make yourself be born with the right set of parent figures or raised in the just the right country, with the right climate to make your business succeed. If you’re an entrepreneur in America, congratulations- you’re in a much better position than most of your counterparts anywhere else in the world.

Smug Alert

Speaking of bloated success stories, studies show that people who perceive themselves as successful are more likely to attribute most of their success to themselves and to their own hard work- thanks to the fallacy of self-attribution. Which is simply ridiculous, otherwise we’d never see a poor Chinese coal miner. But in the end, you still have some control in your life, and regardless of your luck, that control is still pretty damned significant – but not as much as you would think.

A Bright Idea

While a lot depends on chance, you still have to make your own luck, sure – Edison sure as hell did when he set about perfecting his version of the light bulb -he didn’t invent the light bulb, rather he made it practical. When he started, the needed technology had already been around for over 60 years and the best ones could only go for about 10-15 hours before burning out. Almost everyone thought the technology was a dead end. Unlike everyone else, Edison took note of why the bulbs kept burning out then decided it was a matter of finding a better material for the filament.

Edison had to go through thousands of materials, including over 6,000 different kinds of plant fibers which he had shipped from all over the world at great expense before finally settling on carbonized bamboo. His competitors simply weren’t prepared to fail as many times as he did. He wrote. “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates”.

By the time he patented his bulb on November 4, 1879 after a little over a year of R&D, his bulb was capable of burning over 1200 hours. When he started, most bulbs couldn’t make it through 15 hours.

So, how do successful entrepreneurs think?

And as for the entrepreneurial mindset we mentioned earlier, we’ll let you in on something we’ve noticed. We run an online printing company that’s sold tons of print materials to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs- especially those who have started more than one business don’t define success or failure the way normal people do.

What if Edison didn’t even think the light bulb could be improved on? You have to realize that before he started a bulb that burned for 15 hours was considered pretty darned good – a success, even.

For serial entrepreneurs, failures are learning experiences -and successes are just minor improvements. Someone else’s top-of-the-line light bulb is just waiting to be improved. “Success” for most of them, is just a nice but temporary improvement on the way to something better.


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.