Fear and Learning in Entrepreneurship

By Steven Stralser, Ph.D.

Talk to most any group of up-the-corporate-ladder types and mention the word “failure,” and you will detect an almost-audible gasp, because a mistake or setback is often a career-stopper or, at least, a blot on the record.

For these cube-dwellers, an aversion to risk and “don’t take a chance” and “play it safe” attitudes are seen as an antidote to a mistake that can knock the corner office train off its tracks. Yet, talk to an entrepreneur or an enlightened CEO of a company who sees innovation and creativity as the path to profitability and long-term sustainability, and this person will talk openly about failure, mistakes and setbacks as things that are just a part of that journey, process or path along the way to success.

Organizations, not just individuals, learn from mistakes or failure. Boeing became a success in the passenger jet market with its initial workhorse, the 707, by learning from the sometimes tragic mistakes of the Comet, the first passenger jet to be extensively used in commercial air travel. By studying metal fatigue design mistakes made in the Comet that literally caused its wings to fall off in mid-flight, Boeing engineered into its 707 the wingspan “flex ” that is so common in aerodynamic airplane design today.

Thomas Edison, acknowledged as one of the post-industrial age’s most commercially prolific inventor and innovator, and whose work laid the foundation of one of today’s most admired companies, General Electric, is well known, not only for his inventive genius, but also for his high propensity toward failure. Even after he had a long track record of commercial success, Edison failed miserably in “Edison’s Folly,” an attempt later in his career to revolutionize the iron ore processing industry. But he kept trying for a dozen years until he finally found success in developing this industry process.

What we can take from success stories like these is that the journey to success is a journey with many milestones. Some are positive and productive, and some are setbacks, mistakes and failure. It is not what we lose from the setbacks that counts, rather what we learn and apply to make the future a success.

Steven Stralser, Ph.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at Thunderbird’s Walker Center for Global Entrepreneurship. With more than 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur, Dr. Stralser has held high-level marketing and consulting positions in business, industry and non-profit organizations. His expertise is also sought after by top media organizations including ABC, CBS, NBC and NPR.