2011-11-28

Co.Exist

To Succeed, Women And Minorities Need To Be Able To Fail

White men are constantly failing in business, and then pick back up and start again. To get others involved in the economy, we need to teach them it’s okay to be like a clown and not get it right every time.

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.

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15 Comments

  • Piablo

    On a side note, missed a point that I usually argue on these types of topics. Specifically on the men versus women topics...

    Articles like these are simply wrong from the first word printed. They all begin with the notion that men and women are equal in every way. Now I am sure I lost half of the readers on the last sentence, but those with a brain please read on.

    Men and women could not be more different. We have very different bodies. We are physiologically different. We look different. We act differently. Different different different. Yet we have a group of people that are dead set on declaring us identical and equal. Who in heck would think that with such different bodies and gender identities that we'd all have the same goals and aspirations.

    I'll keep this short and simple... The feminists have pushed a nasty agenda over the last 40 years to a point where women now think of themselves as inferior if they choose to raise their own children versus getting a 9-5 paying job. Men and women are not the same. We have different priorities in life. And people like this author should acknowledge some of that instead of trying to perpetuate the battle of the sexes.

  • Vz

    @piablo

    I was content with making my last post my final entry, due to the nature of highly charged
    commentary accompanying articles devolving into a pissing match.

    However in the spirit of intellectual discourse I'll continue the debate and re-engage.
    I have to make a confession, some my comments directed towards you were quasi-ad hominem. So my apologies. The intent however was to bait you into making comments to reveal your holistic ideology and worldview towards minorities and women in particular.

    I respect your "can do" attitude and thomas edison would agree to the basic premise of
    this article and it goes thusly "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work"
    Gladwell's "Outliers" strongly supports the hypothesis described by Edison as "stick-to-itive-ness" often prevails in the face of adversity.

    So don't be misled into thinking that i completely disagree with your opinion.

    However how one reaches such an opinion is of consequence. I've tried to state and I'll
    restate that I in no way disagree with the assertion that failure is essential to
    long term success. The issue is the frequency or inclination to engage in risk is
    impacted by one's circumstances.

    Now moving on to address your "worldview". As I stated before ---I baited you. And sure
    enough you exposed your thinly-veiled bias. Now let me do some profiling. I'll assume
    that you are possibly of chicano-central american origins, possibly from the west coast,
    fairly young --20-30's, college educated, and a budding or aspiring entreprenuer possibly
    business or tech background.

    Ok, now with that being said I strongly believe opinions such as the one's that i hold,
    may be interpreted as deflating your aspirations. Let me state firmly --in no way is that
    the case. I sense that you are driven to overcome any odds or obstacles imposed on you
    by society. I say bravo!

    You're vitriol aimed at women at blacks however are problematic-- "So let's look at blacks,
    a minority victim class..." and "Women outnumber men, period. Yet somehow claim to be victims...".

    Anecdotal references while not completely irrelevant doesn't make for solid logical arguments.
    Numbers in the majority are not indicative of power in society (think Apartheid South Africa) or for a more thorough analysis reference Amy Chua's "World on Fire", which lists a number of countries whose economic systems and social elites are dominated by "market-dominant" minorities. I find it interesting that in your commentary latinos are noticeably absent from your minority label.

    Aren't Latinos by definition minorities? What accounts for the absence in your lengthy analysis for the lack of latino participation in entrepreneurship. Or is this hitting to close to home?

  • Piablo

    Von Briggs/VZ -
    My nic certainly appears to be latin based, but I am of English and German decent. I am white.
    In terms of "bias", this is not a court room. We all have opinions and therefore are all bias one way or another. You have your ideas and opinions about victims and the root causes behind the status of victim classes, and I have mine. So referencing bias in this discussion is fairly irrelevant.

    I'm not a big fan of p-c corporate training programs that aim to reduce responsibility of the company for employee misconduct. However, there was one presentation that I sat through that I really enjoyed. The woman was speaking about work place violence and bullying. Her message about bullying and name calling: "Who cares?" The nature of it all is to take power away from the individual and make the other appear more powerful. Bully calls little Timmy a loser and little Timmy cries. Why, is Timmy a loser? No but the bully has altered Timmy's perception of himself. Whether Timmy thinks he's a loser or not, he is bothered by the perception the bully believes he is. And that is the basis of being a victim.

    It's a state of mind. I'm not talking about the people who lost a house in a hurricane, or their life's fortune from a sleazy stock broker. I am talking about classes of people who feel they can't be or do something simply because they feel the world doesn't believe they can. It's a state of mind.

    So Apartheid. Perfect example. Gandhi led a non-violent revolution. He convinced a group of people that they were indeed equals in society and to behave and live as such. And they did. State of mind. They rose up with guns and knives with the power of their minds. Martin Luther King Jr and others lead the same revolution here and convinced a race of people across this country to live and behave as equals and stop living like sub-humans. They did and the nation changed.

    Latin Americans in the US is a completely different story. We have approximately 15 - 20 million illegals here from our southern neighbors. Latinos have other reasons to stay off the IRS's radar. Just because they are not being tracked by the IRS and business statistics does not mean they are not engaged in the business community. In fact, in one of the recent republican presidential candidate debates, Mitt Romney was accused of hiring illegal labor. Sob they are certainly running businesses, they just don't have the proper paperwork filed and are not paying the proper taxes.

    And lastly VZ, I have no vitriol for blacks or women or any "class" of people. I love people and I enjoy having conversations with random strangers on all sorts of topics! But I have little pity for self defeatists.

  • Ivan J.

    I thought for long, what to write here, but this debate is just not for me to join. after dozens of deleted rows i came to conclusion, that i simply have nothing relevant to say. not that i could not think of sommething, but come on, blaming it on math? really? is that it? Victimizing self over elementary knowledge? Have you noticed, that most of the posts start with evil white men? 
     In US and Europe, we slowly, decade by decade become minority. I do not thing this hatered is gonna help in achieving better social status and acceptance. Young white males, just like me watch being slowly cornered by people full of hidden hatered. What do you expect our reaction shall be?  Taking enormous risks is what got us where we are now. We have it in our nature. To take that one step in the unknown and keep walking come what may. It is not sommething one can learn, or be granted with. You have to carry it in hour heart.   
     

  • saritahs

    I'm a female and a "minority" and I find this article problematic only because taking risks is a personal doing. People choose to take the risk or not. Someone can take risks regardless of racial or economic background. White people have better opportunities and can take risks, even when they shouldn't, because of the advantage of their racial status thanks to a still racially ignorant environment.

    White people have had problems with math and understanding money matters. The concept of over consumption and over spending is not limited to the minorities in America.  There are plenty of "poor trash" white people who I'm sure have problems with math as much as middle class white people and even wealthy white people. Plenty of white people have gone on to higher education without really the smarts to be worthy of that education, they just had better opportunities-parents will to spend thousands of dollars to create the opportunities. In some cases they even can become President of the United States. 

    There are a lot of factors that can be included here such as family structure and environment and whether a "minority" child grows up with a hunger or a mentality of defeat. This can all be chalked up to home life. 

    As for White men taking more risks and failing more often, that's just part of the package we agreed to when White men were allowed to conquer the world. They have no qualms screwing anyone else over as long as they're allowed to continue to conquer. This is what is currently going on in the global financial crisis. 

    People willing to take risks are those willing to fight the system regardless of race, gender or financial background. Again, I'm a minority, female, small business owner, entrepreneur and risk taker. I grew up "middle class" but always aware that I had poor family in Honduras and of where I came from. My Spanish speaking grandparents came here legally, bought a house,  worked to the bone to afford their family that included five children. They never took a handout from the government and I remember that every time I think of what I want to do with my life. It's also why I love my heritage, but I'm American and am proud of it. I also refuse to be limited because I'm a female or I have brown skin. If that's all you see when you see me, we probably won't be friends or even acquaintances. It's time that people stopped saying, "oh, poor me" and started taking actions. There's a reason we're all different. 

  • Piablo

    VZY - I do enjoy responses like yours because I picture you with a big proud smile as you punch that send button. Working in charged words like 'flaccid' and 'myopic'?! Awesome! That will fix my right wing oil burning wagon!

    Sorry, connotation will not win you arguments. It just makes you feel better. Lacking any comprehension of my statement won't do you any favors either.

    Stating the nature of an entrepreneur is opposite that of a victim does not imply all non-entrepreneurs are victims. Nor did I state non-white-males need to work harder.

    Being a self anointed victim precludes oneself from being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs don't understand the word no. The very identity of a victim is about the word "no".

    So let's look at blacks, a minority victim class, in our great capital Washington DC. In DC, blacks are clearly the majority. Whites make up roughly 35% of the population there, making whites the statistical minority. Yet, blacks are still victims in the great Capital. Amazing. Whether white people are present or not, blacks are still victims! Same with Baltimore. Same with Philadelphia. The list goes on.

    Women outnumber men, period. Yet somehow claim to be victims of a male dominated society. Victims in a world where a group of women come forward and end a man's run for the presidency simply by making claims of sexual inappropriateness. Victims in a world where some nobody girl can make assertions that Justin Beiber is the father of her child and the world listens. Victims in a world where judges will garnish the wages of a father and hand them to a cheating mother for child support.

    Being a minority/victim is simply a state of mind. If you want to define yourself as different from everyone else, or believe that others have power over you, then you will be treated different from everyone else and weaker than everyone else. As a white male, I have been in fights with blacks. I don't consider myself a victim of racism. I have been called MANY racist slurs, and I still do not consider myself a victim. I get poor service from blacks at various stores while watching other blacks get great service... still not a victim. None of those folks have any power over me.

    We ALL can be classified as a victim of someone or some group. Whether you choose to is up to you. Rather than whining about 1 person not being a big fan of Piablo, I choose to move on and put my energy into more relevant positive pursuits like my own business.

  • Guest

    @piablo

    I was content with making my last post my final entry, due to the nature of highly charged
    commentary accompanying articles devolving into a pissing match.

    However in the spirit of intellectual discourse I'll continue the debate and re-engage.
    I have to make a confession, some my comments directed towards you were quasi-ad hominem.
    So my apologies. The intent however was to bait you into making comments to reveal your
    wholistic idealogoy and worldview towards minorities and women in particular.

    I respect your "can do" attitude and thomas edison would agree to the basic premise of
    this article and it goes thusly "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work"
    Gladwell's "Outliers" strongly supports they hypotheses that Edison's "stick-to-itive-ness"
    often prevails in the face of adversity.

    So don't be misled into thinking that i completley disagree with your opinion.

    However how one reaches such an opinion is of consequence. I've tried to state and I'll
    restate that I in no way disagree with the assertion that failure is essential to
    long term success. The issue is the frequency or inclination to engage in risk is
    impacted by one's circumstances.

    Now moving on to address your "worldview". As I stated before ---I baited you. And sure
    enough you exposed your thinly-veiled bias. Now let me do some profiling. I'll assume
    that you are possibly of chicano-central american origins, possibly from the west coast,
    fairly young --20-30's, college educated, and a budding or aspiring entrepenuer possibly
    business or tech background.

    Ok, now with that being said I strongly believe opinions such as the one's that i hold,
    may be interpreted as deflating your aspirations. Let me state firmly --in no way is that
    the case. I sense that you are driven to overcome any odds or obstacles imposed on you
    by society. I say bravo!

    You're vitriol aimed at women at blacks however are problematic-- "So let's look at blacks,
    a minority victim class..." and "Women outnumber men, period. Yet
    somehow claim to be victims...".

    Anectdotal references while not completely irrelevant doesn't make for solid logical arguments.
    Numbers in the majority are not indicative of power in society (think Apartheid South Africa) or for a more
    thorough analysis reference Amy Chua's "World on Fire", which lists a number of countries whose
    economic systems and social elites are dominated by "market-dominant" minorities. I find in interesting
    in your commentary that latinos are noticeably absent from your minority label. Aren't Latinos by definition
    not minorities? What accounts for the lack of latino participation in entrepreneuralism absent from
    your lengthy analysis. Or is this hidding to close to home?

  • Guest

    I'd say that both groups have been given ample opportunity to fail which explains why no rational person would trust them with their money. Seriously, you don't think that the fact that the groups you speak of are horrible at math has anything to do with it? Maybe if these groups didn't fail as often in math class they'd be more trust worthy. Spin this comment however you want but it doesn't help you solve a differential equation. Now go make me a sandwich.

  • Piablo

    "Entrepreneur" and "victim" are really opposites by definition. The entrepreneur sees obstacles and finds ways through them. The victim encounters an obstacle and sits defeated. Minority is just another word for victim. Minorities are people who define themselves as not like the majority. They differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. It's self inflicted racism, sexism, or any other measure of differentiation.

    The only way to be successful is to stop thinking of yourself as a victim, and start thinking of yourself as a winner. Stop whining about obstacles, and develop a WILL-DO attitude and some self esteem.

    Racism or sexism do not hold anyone back today any more than preferences to hair style, personality, body weight, etc.... There are dozens of measures people are judging you by every moment. Those who appear motivated, are in charge of the facts, and can speak clear english should and will always be the preferred entrepreneur.

  • Vzy

    Piablo, respectfully i disagree with your initial assertion. Short of calling it ridiculous --I'll simply label it as regurgitated right-wing flavored myopia. To declare that "Entrepreneur" and "victim" are polar opposites neatly fits into a false dichotomy.

    A much broader view is that entreprenuers are just one reflection of a prismatic workplace. If your assertion were to hold every working minority professional is a "victim" simply because they chose not to become an entreprenuer?

    And again many of the comments posted grossly ignores the consequences and fact that the playing field is not even. To simply state that one has to work harder or be more persistent is a flaccid take on addressing the "repercussions" from racial/socioeconomic inequality.

    Any reasonable human being on a regular basis engages in some form of risk analysis. I think its bunk to assume that women and minorities are not inclined nor endeavor to engage in any form of risk analysis. They do! And unfortunately the costs associated with failure rank too high a possibility for many to risk losing savings, time, and opportunity.

  • Clara

    Thank you for your views, however I have to disagree with you. 

    First, I would like to point out that a person does not choose to be a minority. That is decided using simple mathematics. If there is a race or class that is measurably more numerous than any other, then not belonging to that race or class means you are not in the majority.Now, I feel the need to point out to you that the very assumption that I do not go for the things I want because I defeat myself because of being a minority is quite offensive to me. I work hard and I know that I do what I do because I have passion.But do not think that I do not have to work harder than most people. From the start I am always put in a position of having to prove my value to those who would suggest that I am here because a quota needed to be filled and not because I am truly skilled. Worse, is if I do fail, it isn't just my reputation on the line, it's the reputation of every minority I represent. It is one thing to have to deal with such assumptions once or twice, and another to see them constantly.

    I say this to you so that you can recognize these complaints for what they are. Acknowledging that something happens, and happens far often than it should is not whining. It is not making up excuses. Racism and sexism do still exist and they do damage. It is not as easy as you imply to realize that what is being said about you doesn't have to be true.

    One more thing I would like to say to you is that due the way society has been structured for so many years now, many minorities do not have access to basic resources. Proper education, for example, can be an extremely important tool to helping people reach a better position in life. Sadly, in low income neighborhoods the school systems do not provide children with the support they need to learn.

    If you don't have access to the tools you need, it becomes far more difficult to achieve your goal. It's not about having a negative attitude. It's about not being given a chance in the first place. And once given a chance, taking risks and squandering what you have is not something that many people I've met are willing to do.

    It will take time for a change to happen. Most importantly a transformation in people's attitudes about these issues. There needs to be a shift from pretending they don't exist, or assuming that such things can never change, to realizing that there are ways to fix the system. But it will not be done by telling minorities to get over it and achieve anyways. It will be done by opening the doors that were shut. By letting everyone know that they can do anything they want and showing them how.

    You seem to care about giving all people a chance to do more. Put that into action. I suggest volunteering at a local school where the majority of students are from low income families. You will be surprised at how much of an impact you can have just cleaning up or tutoring once a week.

    I hope this response has been of value.

  • Selska9

    why did you say women and minorities but there is no single mention of a minority in the whole article. This article is for women full stop. We live in a racist society that will not give minorities a chance at all. They are booed of tv and voted off as soon as they come on.

  • Vzy

    While I found this article to be an interesting analysis on the participation of women and minorities. I think what is obviously minimized although cited in the article, is the prerequisite wherewithal needed to engage in any risk assessment.

    It's not by coincidence that most founders of new businesses (including startups) are middle class suburban college bound white guys. Having a place to crash if all else fails and an occasional loan or potential investor pool (i believe bill gates got a minor start this way), can go along way to reinforcing once's resolve to fight another day.

    I hate to nitpick but although the article mentions minorities and women in the title, no anecdote is attributed to a minority. One might be led to think that the author is no different from the prevailing investor/business community. A huge part of the problem is that this "community" is determined by one's social circle is. And investor/ business/ startup circles are notoriously white and male.

    I love it how blame shifts away from the victors, who constantly set the stage and determine pathways to success, and the burden of correcting the system is the responsibility of those left out.Instead of trying to "figure" out what minorities and women lack, lets assess why the clannish nature of business is inherently the problem.

    Again while I agree "risk engagment" is critical to startup success, the problem cuts much deeper to issues that "we" as a culture are terrified of addressing. So instead dressing up the problem in biz-speak and pseudo psycho babble, lets just call it what it is Clannish discrimination and culturally imposed limitations.my 2 cents

  • Karla

    I love this article but I feel like it ignores that for many women and minorities, that failure comes with a brand. These two groups are often pinned as reckless and volatile when those risks are taken. It takes exceptional communicators and translators/code switchers within the community to shift perceptions of risk taking. 

  • tressiemcphd

    Good point, Karla.

    I'll also add that there is an additional psychological barrier to failure when one has many kin, both fictive and real, who are personally invested in one's success. That's often a class issue: those who are attempting to transverse class strata often have family and friends who have a vested interest. It just so happens that class is confounded with race in persistent, wily ways. Thus, race-d minorities are disproportionately affected by this burden.