Arlene Dickinson Weighs is on Failure in Business: Reading _All In: You, Your Business, Your Life_

She is a venture capitalist on CBC television’s celebrated programs “Dragons’ Den” and “The Big Decision.” And she’s the owner and CEO of Venture Communications (one of the nation’s largest independent agencies with offices in Calgary and Toronto): Arlene Dickinson knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship! Months ago, I read and discussed (for this blog) her first book, Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds. Today, I’m interested in her discussion of failure in business, in her new study, All In: You, Your Business, Your Life (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2013).

But first to provide the context of that discussion, Dickinson argues that for entrepreneurs like her, work often veers toward workaholism, which undermines the division between “work/life balance.” She says that “work is life” for many business people (57), that the two areas are not distinct. That means, as a result, muddling through “the mess” of daily living, sometimes dedicating your life to business; later putting that business “on hold” to nurture a marriage, etc. She says that “Balance is the enemy of excellence” for herself, and for others like her: “There’s no such thing as a part-time entrepreneur, in my opinion,” she writes. “You’re all in, or you might as well go home” (83 my emphasis).

Yet she recognizes that differences separate one entrepreneur from another, saying that “We all have to do what we have to do to survive and put food on the table.”  Those survival strategies will vary. But she also warns that perfectionism can undermine all early entrepreneurs’ efforts to build their businesses: “. . . it’s also true that there is no ideal time to leave the safety net, and it’s willingness to take the safety net-free leap that is the sign of a true entrepreneur.”

Even if you disagree with her “work is life” philosophy, Dickinson advocates reasonableness, in other ways, as being necessary for entrepreneurship. In particular, she says that “the idea of being good enough” is healthier than being “perfect or excellent or irreproachable” (64). She says that the struggle to “be a good enough mother and a good enough entrepreneur at the same time” isn’t easy for women who are both, but is an essential one to fight (84).

Being “all in” (in the title of her book) does not mean that you have to be perfect, then, but instead that you accept and learn from your whatever your failures are. And her writing on failure is some of the best in the book. These are some highlights:

1. One reason that failure can sit so hard for entrepreneurs, Dickinson says, is that the worst “nay-saying” comes from yourself, not from your critics: when you criticize yourself negatively for whatever failure you make, the pain and agony that arise are far more detrimental than the original failure itself.

Self-criticism surrounding failure can inhibit your progress in business. Negative internal fear is called “resistance” (as Seth Godin has written, cf my earlier blog on his book, Linchpin).  Dickinson shares Godin’s argument that you must act against resistance, however uncomfortable that may feel, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur. You may need to act before it feels comfortable to do so. But you also paradoxically have to be comfortable enough with failure, itself,  in order to learn from it and to work beyond it (217).

2. Mistakes are the form that failure takes: Dickinson writes that “It’s not the mistakes themselves that hone your entrepreneurial skill – rather, it’s what you learn from your mistakes and the degree to which you’re willing to grow from them” (215).

Mistakes make people better entrepreneurs, and improvement “is honed with losses . . . not honed with profits” (217). One of the book’s best lines is this: “Profits spur you to do more of the same thing; losses and mismatches push you to do things better” (217). She cites an early entrepreneur, Thomas Edison, who said “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate” (215).

3.As an entrepreneur, Dickinson says that you need to look at your failures tolerantly and unemotionally:

“[You] don’t just need faith in yourself and your creation to develop the kind of invisible shield that protects you from taking rejection personally or taking your own mistakes to heart. You also have to develop an almost forensic ability to view your misteps and outright failures objectively” (218).

Dickinson points here to a critical concept here for everyone (and not only for entrepreneurs)–dealing with loss and negative emotions. She argues for the need first to deflect rejection or loss and then to bracket off or suspend your emotions, in which I part company from her, finding that unhealthy and impossible to do. I’d argue that emotions (including loss from failures) must be acknowledged, felt and worked through (in your own time and space), before you can learn and grow from them. Experiencing loss and pain, when you know the source and reason, can become the opportunity for insight, self-understanding and for respect toward, and cooperation with, others (who may be the source of the criticism). SO this is an alternate way in which the work/life dichotomy collapses. Life can be “messy,” and there may be tears or venting in the boardroom and not only in one’s own office.

I’d also argue that recognizing that criticism or loss hurts because it resonates with whatever previously-existing issues you may have (and we all have some “buttons” that get pushed ), but is not that cruel “other” person (i.e. that abusive relative or teacher from your past), frees you to experience the loss and simultaneously to learn from.  For instance, an entrepreneur, Helen can recognize that the memo that she wrote to her employees was, in their perspective, too long-winded and rambling, when she recognizes that those employees actually like her and usually respond positively to her efforts to communicate. When she recognizes that they are not her abusive Uncle J (from childhood), and works through the distress and upset that reminds her of him, she can find an opportunity to grow: she can learn ways (that Dickinson says are “objective”) to write more concise memos that her employees better appreciate. She also learns implicitly that employees’ criticism is not necessarily abusive.

This process of working through failures, mistakes and losses differs from Dickinson’s argument that emotions need to be “remove[d] . . . from the equation” if one is “to recover and move on quickly” (218). I don’t think that any removal of emotions or finding an objective way to view failure is possible, without first working through one’s emotions. But Dickinson and I are eyeing the same goal on the horizon—to be able to grow from one’s failures and mistakes. And although I don’t think that compartmentalizing one’s emotions is healthy (121-124), Dickinson does (somewhat self-contradictorily) say that she would not leave her emotions at the door when entering a new romantic relationship, because “it wouldn’t be her ‘anymore.’” (205). Emotions are just as much a part of the entrepreneurial workday as they are whatever familial relationship(s) you live in, around it.

Dickinson deserves credit, though, for bringing more attention to the detrimental affect of shame on business and entrepreneurship, which many entrepreneurs may register only unconsciously:

4.She writes that failure shouldn’t be a “cause for shame” (217), while also recognizing that our culture attaches shame to our failures. Dickinson defines shame effectively as a “feeling of innate wrongness and isolation. And when you’re experiencing shame, you’re actually telling yourself that there’s something deeply wrong with you – not only with specific actions you’ve taken or words you’ve said, but with you – as a person” (213). Shame is, therefore, the most soul-depleting affect there is, so that growing through mistakes should never involve feeling ashamed for having made them.

Dickinson writes that shame destroys the “self-esteem, entrepreneurial spirit and creative drive you’ll need to bring your business to reality. The work of building a business is hard enough – you can’t bring it your all if you’re playing hurt” (213). And she also insightfully says that if you’re in an environment (be it business, artistic, academic) where “by virtue of the fact that you just don’t fit in, you’re labelled a failure, you’ve got to take immediate steps to protect yourself, because entrepreneurship is a marathon that you’ll need all your mental energy to run” (213).

So Dickinson’s new book All In: You, Your Business, Your Life, bravely discusses the role of failure in growing as an entrepreneur. Failure may arise from negative self-commentary; mistakes, an inability to work through the emotions stirred up by failure; and by (unfair) shame. Failures can be as minor as not having as many clients as you’d like or need, to the much more dramatic failure, say, of declaring bankruptcy, as some entrepreneurs do. Failure is rarely final, she writes. “ ‘No’ usually means ‘not yet’ or ‘not quite like this’” (221), and can be the basis of extraordinary professional and personal insight and development.

For me, my business must allow for balance, if I’m to be a creatively nourished and productive person. Work is not life to me, but I recognize that the boundary between the two does blur, during intensive periods.  All In (like Sandberg’s Lean In, but taken from Brene Brown’s writing on shame) can refer to an attitude of creative and emotionally aware engagement with work, that does not necessarily mean workaholism, and can in fact try to “work” intensively enough when you work, to free up your life (in the work/life balance), the rest of the time.

In what ways do you experience failure as an entrepreneur? How can these insights of Dickinson’s bring about growth and strength for you? Please send me your thoughts; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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