At an event recently in Minneapolis, Rose McGee, a professional storyteller, came forward with a powerful statistic: White male entrepreneurs endure failure at least 11 times in their career. Wow. I was struck both by the high rate of failure as well as the subtext of the comment. White men are allowed to fail. But are women and minorities given equal opportunity? Unlikely.
The bias that emerges isn’t one of white men having more income, educational advantage, or social capital. White men are afforded more chances to take risks—and in taking risks they are allowed to fail and succeed in greater number than women and minorities.
So why is access to risk so essential? The ability to take on risk—to risk failure—is what enables individuals to carve out their own direction in life. It’s part of what gives someone a sense of power to overcome circumstance and reach for something bigger. The ability to take on risk means quite simply that one no longer has to live in a world of "a dream deferred" (to quote Langston Hughes), but can rather embrace "the impossible dream" (to quote Man of La Mancha).
Armed with only a hypothesis that white men have more access to risk-taking than women and minorities, I began to do some light field research. The first person I reach out to is Erica. Erica is an English friend of mine who dropped out of college to join a band she met at a nightclub one evening. The band was The White Rose Movement and they were searching for a keyboardist. In addition to being a songwriter and keyboardist, Erica is a risk taker. But she also lives life more cautiously than many of her former bandmates. These days, she has gone back to the cozy confines of academia, while the rest of the band is still hankering for fame. Erica suggests that perhaps many women aren’t inclined to take risks because "they are more aware of when they have the potential to look foolish by pursuing unrealistic goals," or after she pauses to reflect, "it might also have something to do with the fact that women must be seen to be ultra professional at all times. They feel like they have to do the right thing."
Erica’s words ring true. I remember one evening having an extended conversation with a friend of mine. She was debating whether or not to leave her PhD program, whether to try something new, but she kept getting pulled back in her quest for academic approval. That night, we both confessed how our biggest obstacle to success was perfectionism: the need to wait for the perfect conditions or the perfect idea or venture before we shared it with people. In this way, we often failed to build communities of support. It was a conversation—a moment—that has since allowed me to share early and often. I learned that in sharing and being open about where you are headed, you actually increase the odds of getting there by enrolling the support of others. In this way, embracing uncertainty and problem solving around uncertainty with others from the beginning rather than waiting until you’ve ruled it out is a necessary component of risk-taking.
The next person I speak to is my friend Guy. He recently attended an improv workshop on clowning, which he described to me as "life changing." For Guy, pretending to be a clown all week got him in touch with failure. "It’s all about being comfortable with people laughing at you. From there its easier to shift them into a place of laughing with you," he says.
The clown is the supreme archetype of failure. Part of the reason the clown is such a successful entertainer is because most people can’t afford to fail like a clown, to be that vulnerable, clumsy, and uninhibited. Even to see it second-hand—to experience the second-hand embarrassment of the clown—is a release for people.
So what can we learn from clowns? Part of the method of the clown is to try to enjoy the process, to be comfortable with the failing so that you can show whatever it is you feel and not hide, aiming only to show what is good. In the realm of entrepreneurship, clowning translates into the ability to take a risk and then should you fail, be able to spin that failure into both a learning opportunity and a success. Successful entrepreneurs do this all the time. Sean Parker, for example, the founder of Napster, failed in many ways. Napster faced countless lawsuits and was shut down. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered Parker. To him, his failure revolutionized the music industry.
While we all might not be able to turn our personal failures into transformational wins like Parker’s, the shift is clear. In perceiving failure as part of success—as endemic to it—we can transform our thinking and develop more of an appetite for risk. Only when women and minorities begin to shift their attitudes towards failure and risk will society begin to rewrite the cultural scripts that make it acceptable for white men to fail, but somehow "unsafe" or "shameful" for others to dream big as well.