Sunday, August 18, 2013

Calling All Failures

Professor Elizabeth Langland wrote a book called Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture which is where I first remember encountering the term "non-narratable."  Basically it means the kind of stories that a society does not allow to be told.  In her book, she was talking about stories where a servant girl marries her master, stories which were common in 18th-century fiction but "non-narratable" in 19th-century fiction, with a few qualified exceptions.

I'm wondering if stories of entrepreneurial failure are non-narratable in our culture right now.  Perhaps "non-narratable" is too strong of a phrase. Most books on the subject, after all, generally include a short cautionary tale in there someplace.  But my husband and I are thinking of starting our own business, and the stack of books that we checked out from the library looks something like this:

Mommy Millionaire
The $100 Start up
Awakening the Entrepreneur Within
Ladies Who Launch
The 4-Hour Workweek
Start It, Sell It & Make a Mint

There are a few, more cautionary tomes (Will It Fly? and Before You Quit Your Job although the latter title assumes that you will, in fact, eventually quit your job), but in general everyone seems to be chanting the American mantras "follow your dreams and the money will come" and "believe in yourself and you can do anything."

Here is example of what I'm talking about, taken from one of the cautionary tomes, Robert T. Kiyosaki's Before You Quit Your Job:

In the late 1980s, I was invited to do a talk on entrepreneurship at Columbia University.  Rather than talk about my successes, I talked about my failures and how much I learned from my mistakes.  The young audience asked a lot of questions and seemed genuinely interested in the ups and downs of becoming entrepreneur....  All in all, I thought it was an objective and realistic talk on the process of becoming an entrepreneur.  A few weeks later, I found out that the faculty member who had invited me to speak at university was called into her department head's office and reprimanded.  His final words to her were, "We do not allow failures to speak at Columbia" (xv).

I have two conclusions to this post.
1.  Will the failures please stand up?  Can we talk about this out loud without seeming un-American?  I use that phrase deliberately, in memory of a supervisor that I had in Slovakia.  When I mentioned that Americans routinely tell children is that they can do and be anything they want, he replied that they did not say similar things to Slovak children.  "Maybe it is true for you, but it is not true for us."  Well, maybe it is not true for us, either, but were just not allowed to admit it very much or very often.

2.  Upon reflection, my husband and I actually already own our own businesses.  Granted, they are small.  I do freelance writing and editing.  I might take up art/crafting for money again.  He is a professional magician.  This blog earns a tiny bit of revenue. (To date: $10.82!)  But just because something as small doesn't mean that it is unimportant.

So I'm calling all failures out there.  Did you have a business you believed in and you worked hard for that still failed?  What did you learn?  Would you do it again?  You can comment anonymously, here, in the great echoing void of the Internet where no one will know who you are.

I feel like the idea of business failure is so unspeakable and somehow that is paralyzing me.

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