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Why coping with death is good for entrepreneurs? The false truths of what we tell them!

Myth and Fallacies of Entrepreneurship

· Entrepreneurs,Innovation,failure

Gabrielle Chanel Founder and Fashion Designer of Coco Chanel,

Bill Gates Founder of Microsoft,

Elon Musk founder of Tesla and SpaceX,

Jeff Bezos founder of Amazon.

These are just a few names of successful entrepreneurs and innovators.

We celebrate their success.

"We haven't seen many businessmen like him," -Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway's chairman and CEO told CNBC's Squawk Box in reference to Jeff Bezos.

We glorify their achievements and work ethic.

Elon Musk Admits He's Only 'Tried' to Take Two Weeks Off in Past 12 Years according to Entrepreneur magazine.

We build them up to be larger than life.

These are the stories of happy endings that many current and future entrepreneurs will never see and thus I would like to propose a more meaningful discussion that may not be so happy, so shiny and without rainbows and ponytails.

Having the honor to be part of the interactive sessions at Et Cultura--the premier Film, Music, Art, Interactive & Maker Festival on innovation and entrepreneurship, I was able to share some talking points on the Myth and Fallacies of Entrepreneurship. For those who know SXSW (South by South West), know the value of these events that act as a breeding ground for new ideas and creative technologies.

It was at Et Cultura where I was able to share about the false truths that dominate the discussion about entrepreneurs.

First, it is inevitable that entrepreneurs and innovators will face uncertainty bound with failure. This is part of the journey and it is not surprising that many new entrepreneurial ventures fail. This is neither a good nor bad, but a market mechanism within the free market and where the Myth of the Entrepreneur starts.

The entrepreneurship discourse is dominated by the stories of highly successful entrepreneurs extolling the virtues of failure as a valuable teacher. A lesson. Motivation for future success.

This can be seen from Steve Jobs being removed from his own company to return later to save Apple and create innovative products that are ubiquitous in our lives today. We can look at Walt Disney, one of the most creative geniuses of the 20th century who was once fired from a newspaper because he was told he lacked creativity.

“It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” -Bill Gates proclaims.

These examples end up with the entrepreneur triumphing over adversity, similar to Hercules completing his challenges or Ulysses return home after the decade-long Trojan War.  Yet, the aftermath of failure which is not talked about or even acknowledged in the dominant discourse of entrepreneurship is often fraught with psychological, social and financial turmoil.  The entrepreneurial journey that is not being told is a dark one.  A potential abyss of grief.  A voyage that provokes feelings of death and loss.

It is common for entrepreneurs to define themselves by their business projects. They tether their self-worth to what they accomplish or do not accomplish. In other words, if a project fails or their idea is not accepted- they consider themselves failures. However, the effects of business failure on the individual neophyte entrepreneur are more complex and arguably paradoxical.

Academics, popular designers, and the entrepreneurial class have adopted a battle cry with enthusiasm around failure.

Fail Fast!

Fail Often!

Fail Forward!

Failing Better!​

While failure may lead to valuable learning opportunities for the entrepreneur, it is also an emotional and traumatic experience that obstructs learning.

Learning may take place, but for the learning to have benefits and to materialize and be valuable to the entrepreneur of the failed business, must deploy this new knowledge in which was learned from that failure— by embarking on another entrepreneurial venture.  This point reflects the myth of the entrepreneur and highlights the need for the application of the new knowledge for failure to be useful.

If the costs of failure (i.e., financial, social and psychological) are too high compared to the benefits of learning from failure, entrepreneurs may choose to exit their entrepreneurial careers. In such a situation, both the entrepreneur and society may lose out.  Once failure is experienced feelings of denial, anger, and depression may set in that replicate the experience of death and loss.

Even knowing this, we continue to leave innovators and entrepreneurs in the dark with little tools to cope with failure.  At this intersection opportunity lies.

It is how this failure is handled that will determine our next success. To ensure these individual and society benefit from their entrepreneurial activities, new tools must be created, taught, and employed for success to occur. Entrepreneurs can still learn from failure, but without the right preparation to ones psychological, physical and social well-being entrepreneurs may not be adaptive enough to cope with the challenges, disappointment, and adversity faced as entrepreneurs and innovators.

It is here where the city of St. Petersburg, my hometown offers support to maximize learning to overcome failure and loss within its entrepreneurial community.  By having this support, entrepreneurs can apply these learning lessons, to build a fortress for personal recovery to overcome challenges, learn from loss, and to become re-motivation for another entrepreneurial venture.

Not only must entrepreneurs and innovators take care of and nurture their business ventures, they must also look after their own psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. A healthy well-being builds resiliency! The people of St. Petersburg have developed an ecosystem that supports the needs of the whole entrepreneur. This ecosystem of yoga studios, clubs, meet-ups, mental health communities, energetic and spiritual groups, not to mention the beach, sun and salt life is what differentiates St. Petersburg from every other city that promotes entrepreneurship and innovation as a savior for economic renewal.

As Mark Suster, entrepreneur-turned VC (venture capitalist) has argued the Fail Fast mantra needed to die fast, because it was “wrong, irresponsible, unethical and heartless.”​

We should not accept the dominate discourse and short change our country’s entrepreneurs and innovators who contribute so much to our society. A change is needed. A change in the conversation, to a message about embracing resiliency, the whole entrepreneur, and in bouncing back with the new applied knowledge to future ventures.

We can no longer glorify mistakes and errors, but to cultivate the ability to adapt and learn from them.

Steve is an innovation and management professor, researcher and traveler. He currently holds a faculty position in the Kate Tiedemann College of Business at the University of South Florida- St. Petersburg. Steve has been a researcher at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain and Imperial Business School in London, UK in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group.

As a professor, he teaches courses in management and uses design thinking for problem solving in the areas of innovation, strategy and entrepreneurship. Steve is the founder of the Finger Puppet Management Framework- an edtech initiative to teach management in the classroom where students create TV shows to learn and to educate the world about management.

Steve is a researcher of open innovation and has worked with IBM and their Innovation Jam Platform. He has published on how large organizations such as IBM are utilizing Innovation Jams as a new model of innovation that taps into the collective knowledge of the organizational network. This research stream suggests that managers do not have all the information needed to make informed decisions and benefit from open models of decision support. Learn more about these projects at 

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