In search and praise of (well intentioned) failure

To succeed, many things need to go right. To fail, only one of them needs to go wrong.

Economists talk of the paradox of thrift: saving money is good for you, but if everyone saves too much, then we all may be worse off. Curiously, the same logic applies to entrepreneurial failure, but the other way around: failing is bad for you, but if everyone tries (and many fail), we may be better off overall as there will surely be some spectacular successes among us.

This interplay works very well in sports. Big competitions – the Olympics, world championships, etc. – work best when a lot of good athletes compete in them. But for each individual competitor, the odds are normally stacked against winning. Yet, it is being in the competition that is the essence of being an athlete. The title applies to anyone who competes, regardless of whether they actually win. Most amazingly, no one fails in sports; they simply do not win.

Unfortunately, when talking about entrepreneurship, we tend to reserve the title “entrepreneur” only to those who win. Becoming an entrepreneur implies having successfully started a business or other venture with economic or social impact.  And the title stays forever: we say X is an entrepreneur, never X was an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is a competitive endeavor, so why don’t we call anyone who competes in good faith and to the best of their ability “entrepreneur”? Some will succeed, many will wait for the next tournament(s). But all become equally appreciated.