TALKING about fear of failure is the British disease

By October 15, 2007From mobile

Posted by mobile phone:
The following was printed in yesterday’s Sunday Times (I’m on my Blackberry, so no link):

“Nearly half of all adults in Britain have considered setting up their own business, but one in two of them are too scared of failure to do anything about it, according to a nationwide survey commissioned by Orange Business Services.

The Survey of 2,481 adults found that fear of failure is the No. 1 barrier to people starting up on their own, followed by a lack of confidence.

All the talk about how us uptight Brits are afraid of failure really annoys me, and I hear it a lot.

Of course people are afraid of failure – they should be. Starting a company is fraught with risk and the stats show that most don’t succeed. Thinking you might fail is a good and rational reason not to start a business. If we didn’t have people thinking like that there would be more bankruptcies.

So I think the Survey doesn’t tell us anything.

What it does do is reduce our confidence as a nation of entrtepreneurs and perpetuate a poor excuse for why we don’t produce as many great startups here as they do in California.

That is what irritates me.

The startup ecosystem is still young here and it needs nurturing. That is why I’m a big supporter of initiatives like Saul’s Seedcamp and OpenCoffee and other events like Chinwag and Mashup. It is also partly why I write this blog.

Talking to my Father-in-law last night I was reminded that being a bankrupt used to carry a social stigma that was never present in the same way across the Atlantic, so I will admit that the notion of fear of failure does have a basis in history, but I really think that is changing. Certainly here at DFJ Esprit we wouldn’t regard it as a black mark in and of itself. Rather if an entrepreneur had presided over a business failure and had learned something from the experience we would regard that as a postive.

So, and I hope it isn’t too much of an imposition to make a request of you on a Monday morning, next time you hear someone talking about how fear of failure inhibits us here in the UK I urge you not to nod sagely, but to push back and try to move the conversation onto more constructive ground.

  • This isn’t just restricted to start-ups, a lot of successful, established companies suffer from the same cycle, they want innovation and entrepreneurship, but being perceived as failing is a black mark on your career path. A guy who used to work for me said in all seriousness that the secret in any organisation was never take a decision that way it’s never your fault – the Peter/Dilbert principle all over – so we end up with people who’ve never taken a risk running the show. Creating a culture that acknowledges risk and accepts failure as part of a creative process across the board is vital to getting past this.

    Personally, and as an entrepreneur, if I thought too much about what could go wrong I’d never get out of bed in the morning. Just have to push that stuff to one side, focus on what you’re trying to create, and get on with it. (Being able to cultivate an almost impenetrable wall of optimism helps a lot too.)

  • This isn’t just restricted to start-ups, a lot of successful, established companies suffer from the same cycle, they want innovation and entrepreneurship, but being perceived as failing is a black mark on your career path. A guy who used to work for me said in all seriousness that the secret in any organisation was never take a decision that way it’s never your fault – the Peter/Dilbert principle all over – so we end up with people who’ve never taken a risk running the show. Creating a culture that acknowledges risk and accepts failure as part of a creative process across the board is vital to getting past this.

    Personally, and as an entrepreneur, if I thought too much about what could go wrong I’d never get out of bed in the morning. Just have to push that stuff to one side, focus on what you’re trying to create, and get on with it. (Being able to cultivate an almost impenetrable wall of optimism helps a lot too.)

  • Brilliant post. Couldn’t agree more. you nailed it.

  • Brilliant post. Couldn’t agree more. you nailed it.

  • nic

    Thanks Paul!

    Harry – I think big companies are a different kettle of fish altogether and are more risk averse the world over (Dilbert is American after all). That is often why entrepreneurs leave them.

  • nic

    Thanks Paul!

    Harry – I think big companies are a different kettle of fish altogether and are more risk averse the world over (Dilbert is American after all). That is often why entrepreneurs leave them.

  • It’s not just fear of bankruptcy though. As Felix Dennis points out in his excellent book “How to get rich” – Fear of Failure is also about not wanting to look stupid in front of the people you know if things go wrong.

  • It’s not just fear of bankruptcy though. As Felix Dennis points out in his excellent book “How to get rich” – Fear of Failure is also about not wanting to look stupid in front of the people you know if things go wrong.

  • Yep, great post. The problem for me is that we literally don’t ‘breed’ it. Professionalism and not entrepreneurialism seems to get handed down generation to generation in the UK. Nought to do with fear, confidence or any other emotion. In my openion, more to do with people’s frames of reference.

  • Yep, great post. The problem for me is that we literally don’t ‘breed’ it. Professionalism and not entrepreneurialism seems to get handed down generation to generation in the UK. Nought to do with fear, confidence or any other emotion. In my openion, more to do with people’s frames of reference.

  • Nick

    1 of the most important lessons I learnt is NOT to take advice from people who haven’t run their own business.

    By this I mean asking Your mum, bro, wife etc if they think 1 should leave their well paid job and go it alone, and yes most people do this, however the advice is normally negative along the lines of “what if …”

    I remember many years ago, I’d have a great idea and get advice from such people, and yes you guessed it, they would have me sold down Negativity Lane within minutes.

    These days I try and NOT discuss such matters with them, and seek advice from people who have taken the leap themself, and guess what, very diff response.

  • Nick

    1 of the most important lessons I learnt is NOT to take advice from people who haven’t run their own business.

    By this I mean asking Your mum, bro, wife etc if they think 1 should leave their well paid job and go it alone, and yes most people do this, however the advice is normally negative along the lines of “what if …”

    I remember many years ago, I’d have a great idea and get advice from such people, and yes you guessed it, they would have me sold down Negativity Lane within minutes.

    These days I try and NOT discuss such matters with them, and seek advice from people who have taken the leap themself, and guess what, very diff response.

  • Good post. I once read there is a fundamental difference between bankruptcy in the USA and the UK. Here in the UK you lose your house and everything except “the tools of your trade”. Whereas I understand in the USA you are allowed to keep your main home.

  • Good post. I once read there is a fundamental difference between bankruptcy in the USA and the UK. Here in the UK you lose your house and everything except “the tools of your trade”. Whereas I understand in the USA you are allowed to keep your main home.

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