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Why entrepreneurs need to stop fetishizing failure

For too long entrepreneurs treated failure as a dirty secret. But the new pro-failure attitude that’s taken its place has problems of its own

Dartboard with darts stuck in the wall around it

(Larry Washburn/Getty)

Monica Puig’s tennis career has been, to be generous, spotty. The 22-year-old former child prodigy had a few big-ish wins, and a lot more tough losses, before she entered the Rio Olympics an unseeded representative of Puerto Rico this past August. Fast-forward a week or so, and she’d won a gold medal, after beating the world Nos. 2 and 3 and making it three rounds further than presumptive victor Serena Williams. It was a hell of a come-from-behind story—the kind of heartwarming fare that makes the Olympics worth watching—precisely because it didn’t come easy for Puig. She failed, and often, until she didn’t.

Puig’s story nicely exemplifies our collective attitude toward failure, in business as in sport, in 2016: Losses don’t matter, as long as you eventually win. (Never mind that not two weeks after her Olympic win, Puig lost in the first round of the U.S. Open.) There was a time, not so long ago, that failure in business was a deeply shameful thing. An entire cottage industry of consultancies—and no doubt more than one therapy practice—has been built in the effort to help entrepreneurial types deal with the fallout of failure. Veteran entrepreneurs used to bury past efforts that didn’t work out, training themselves to deftly talk around the unsuccessful ventures on their CVs.

That has changed. Society no longer treats those who’ve failed in business as pariahs. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Look to the case of Tim Romero, a Tokyo-headquartered entrepreneur who, earlier this summer, “gave up” and closed ContractBeast, a startup that produced software for people who make software, when it hadn’t gained a significant following after just seven months in business. “My team and most of my investors are pissed,” he wrote, with jarring cheerfulness, in a buzzy Medium post written the day after he shut down. “But I’m sure I’m doing the right thing. At least I think I’m sure.”

The scores of comments following Romero’s post were almost universally supportive. “I think you showed integrity and vision,” wrote one commenter. Another brought up his own ditched business: “Sure, I could’ve pivoted… but I didn’t feel excited about the product or the customers anymore.”

This is the tenor of the times. “Winning the first time, every time and all the time is unrealistic and harmful to your continued success,” wrote South African entrepreneur Nicholas Haralambous in a 2014 post on the website Ventureburn. (Fair enough.) In 2012, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie called failure “an inevitable part of thinking big and going after what you’re really passionate about.” (Uh, okay). In an Entrepreneur article last year defending Donald Trump’s long trail of bankruptcies, editor-at-large Ray Hennessey called failure “a badge of honour.” (Really?!)

This attitude is an overcorrection, and an irresponsible one. There’s now an entire generation of young entrepreneurs coming of age amid buoyant refrains of “fail early, fail often.” It’s producing an environment in which abandoning a business seems almost consequence-free.

And it might be, for the entrepreneur—especially if she’s bankrolled by others. Entrepreneurs tend to be an action-oriented, onwards-and-upwards lot—a longitudinal study published by the Journal of Economic Psychology in 2014 associated successful entrepreneurs with higher-than-normal levels of hardiness, resourcefulness and optimism—meaning that when their venture fails, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be able to rebound quickly, with a nifty second-act tale of adversity to slot into their narrative. Less certain to recover are employees who give up steady gigs to work for a hot new upstart, or investors who bet big on starry-eyed promises, not to mention suppliers who won’t get paid and customers who won’t get work. A business’s failure isn’t inspirational fodder for them.

Failure is super common in entrepreneurship: Depending on which numbers you believe, only 20% to 50% of all businesses launched make it to their fifth birthday. A shuttered venture shouldn’t irrevocably tar its creator—but it also shouldn’t be fetishized as an entrepreneurial rite of passage.