Last week we saw the publication of The Entrepreneurial Myth: A Manifesto for Real Business by Louise Nicolson. Entrepreneurs are defined as all-powerful, never-fail gurus who shoulder our collective necessity for enterprise. Promoted through education, politics and media, the mythical entrepreneur bears little relation to the messy reality of running a small business. Based on analysis spanning 30 years, this book challenges the pervasive misrepresentation of business creators in the UK, US, India and China. It examines how The Entrepreneurial Myth damages entrepreneur’s mental health, skews public policy, amplifies business failure rates and undermines global economies. Today we have an extract from The Entrepreneurial Myth on how the Myth distorts failure, skews success and promotes business churn.
Over £196 Billion thrums from entrepreneurial ventures to the British economy. But it’s so much more than money. There is a pinch of alchemy, a glance of magic. The thirty-year media sample at the heart of my book, The Entrepreneurial Myth, revealed the vivid caricatures created by journalists and a newspaper-loving-public in the pages of national broadsheets. Male entrepreneurs – and they were nearly always men – are portrayed as wolfish charmers, supernatural gurus, saviours, corruptors and skyrockets.
SUCCESS IS EASY
The Entrepreneurial Myth depicts the entrepreneur as a special sage and top-tips guru. The sweat, blood and tears of real business are relegated to the small print; Business is easy! Follow these tips! You are encouraged to follow a handful of men; Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jack Ma, perhaps a few more. You are urged to read his biography and follow his plan. And don’t worry about failure. “I’ve been failing for as long as I can remember,” says Branson. “If you aren’t failing, you are not innovating enough,” says Musk.* Can you hear the echo of ancient plots? Eureka, challenge and triumph; struggle, grow and sell.
This is the Muth at its most intoxicating because it blends two psychological phenomena. First, you are programmed to believe the quick fix tips. The truth bias** is the tendency to believe positive information from someone in authority whether it is true or not. Second, you are hard-wired to be impatient. It is psychologically uncomfortable to wait: instant gratification feels good. Which would you prefer to read: ‘Four tips for building a million-dollar business’ or ‘How to build a million-dollar business in 14 years?’ Quite! Oversimplified ‘easy if you know how’ top tips sit in stark contrast with the long slog of messy business. If business success really could be captured in top tips or quick fixes, entrepreneurial survival rates would not make such brutal reading. now add the familiar shorthand of ancient stories and you are hooked.
Ironically, those promoting business risk and distorting failure, do so from a position of success and wealth. Davidow and Williams capture this neatly as they urge us all to Fail Brilliantly.*** If Branson wasn’t a success, you wouldn’t hear his tale of failure. Success gives star entrepreneurs the platform but hollows out their message. Those who are arguably as talented but didn’t receive the break or the call – the real failures, if you like – remain invisible. What do they have to say about the ache of not quite making it? “Let’s be honest, ‘fail often: fail better’ can be seen as the mantra of the privileged,” says Davidow and Williams. “Those few who already know the taste of success in their fields – people not deterred by the results of their meandering experiments, and associated risk factors.” For those that don’t make it onto the platform, failure is relentlessly personal.
*Both Branson and Musk cited in Shelley Davidow and Paul Williams, Fail Brilliantly: Exploding the Myths of failure and Success (USA: Familius Books, 2017) 68.
**Myrto Pantazi, Mikhail Kissine, and Olivier Klein (2018). The Power of the Truth Bias: False Information Affects Memory and Judgement Even in the Absence of Distraction. Social Cognition: Vol 36, No 2, pp. 167-198.
***Shelley Davidow and Paul Williams, Fail Brilliantly: Exploding the Myths of failure and Success (USA: Familius Books, 2017) 38.
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