Finding the Route Around Self-Pity
THE FACT IS POOR CHOICES OFTEN LEAD TO BAD CONSEQUENCES... EVEN FOR ENTREPRENEURS...
Preface: This series of somewhat self-indulgent literary and philosophical reflections began with "Social Media Is a Highway, Not a Destination". This installment questions the current fad for feeling sorry for entrepreneurs who suffer financial and emotional losses as a result of their single-minded focus on their businesses. I ended up publishing this one out of order, because during the initial edit, as I thought the first version possible too strident, and felt I should let it sit for a while in order to gain some perspective. Links to the previous articles in the series will be found at the end of this post, should you be moved by this one to sample one or more of them.
But many ... entrepreneurs ...harbor secret demons: Before they made it big, they struggled through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair--times when it seemed everything might crumble...
There seems to be a new genre evolving on social media. It involves detailing the trials and tribulations faced by both successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs. Which might be fascinating except that it's imbued with an undertone of pity-the-poor-entrepreneur.
Well, I just don't get it. Yes, it is probably useful for would-be entrepreneurs to understand the obstacles and pitfalls, the sacrifices and losses — of friends, family, possessions, savings, health — along the way. And it is interesting, perhaps, for the rest of us to know the hard side of entrepreneurship, the long hours, the risk, the constant tension and potentially ensuing psychological trauma involved.
But should we feel sorry for entrepreneurs who risk all and lose? Or for those who go through hell and... win? I think not in either case. For the path they chose to follow, and the consequences they faced, were the result of their own free choice, if not their own making.
Empathy for someone who has suffered, or is suffering entrepreneurial hardship is not the same as feeling sorry for them ... although the two are often confused...
If an entrepreneur, successful or otherwise, says, "Hey, budding trailblazers of business opportunity, think more than twice about your choice, because it isn't an easy path to follow..." Or some such. Then I understand and applaud his or her willingness to share the negatives of his or her experience. And if those negatives were particularly trying, then I sympathize and wonder about how I would have fared in their shoes.
However, that does not mean I feel sorry for them. Or that I should.
They did what they did. And however it turned out is on them, not me, not the world, not fate, or Kismet, or Karma. Well, maybe if they suffered and failed, it was Karma, and I just don't know enough about their background and lives to judge. But that's a separate topic entirely.
So, where does this evolving genre of pity-the-poor-entrepreneur come from? From, I submit, a lack of understanding of the realities of business and free enterprise. In particular, a failure to understand that if free enterprise involves having the chance to make it really big on the basis of your own abilities and hard work, it also involves the freedom to fail, to hit snags and pitfalls that batter and beat you, possibly to an emotional pulp.
Just as free enterprise means the freedom to profit from one's ability and efforts, it also means the freedom to lose... And if we should not begrudge those who make it big, conversely, we should not be called upon to feel sorry for those who do not...
I recently did a search for entrepreneurs on the other professional networking platform. The query returned more than 1/4 million self-designated entrepreneurs of which a statistical sampling showed fewer than 10% who appeared on the face of it actually to be starting or running businesses, or developing and marketing new and purportedly innovative products.
Granted, that statistic could be off. But even if off by 100% or even 200%, the conclusion remains that the vast majority of people who see themselves as entrepreneurs aren't. They may want to think they are, or they may be planning to become one. But they aren't yet.
Which also means they aren't prepared for the real world of entrepreneurship — mostly, I venture to say, because they don't really know anything about the world of business.
When I say they don't know anything about business, I don't mean they haven't worked in a business environment, or for a business, or in public service. What I mean is they haven't actually faced the personal need to raise working capital, meet payrolls, pay overheads, direct marketing, develop and implement strategic planning, and so on, and so on, and...In other words, when I say they don't know anything about business, I mean they haven't yet experienced fully, or at least they are just beginning to experience the reality of the buck stops here. Not to mention the reality of what happens when the bucks stop coming in.
I also mean that, when those who are in the throes of entrepreneurial shock first decided to embark on their adventure, they had no idea of how hard the work would be, or how long the hours, or how the enterprise would absorb, literally, their every waking moment and quite a few of those moments when they would otherwise have been sleeping.
I once had a client who was the paradigm entrepreneur. And sufficiently successful to have been officially well within the Forbes 200 for several years. We had a one-on-one relationship for a decade, during which time I came to learn a lot about what makes a true entrepreneur tick. I won't digress into all of that now, so if you're interested in that story, see: "What I Learned About Entrepreneurs From the Founder of Monster.com" What I will do now is relate to you an anecdote that says a lot about the entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Shortly after my client hit the Forbes 200 with an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion in 2001 dollars, he was interviewed by an NY news magazine. By that time, he was in his fifth marriage. When the interviewer asked him about it, he said, "Change is good." Which was a witty way of shutting down that line of inquiry.
What was not evident was that he was in his fifth marriage because business and its demands always came first. Not that he didn't love and take care of his numerous children and families, for he did. But business was his mistress and always had priority call on his time. And the serial marriages were the price he paid for that, in several different senses.
At one time, starting a business involved accumulating working capital, buying or leasing premises, installing phones and other tangible infrastructure, etc. ... Today, many so-called start-ups occur in the virtual world, where all you need is a computer and an ISP ...
The result is that many people get an idea that being an entrepreneur is a great alternative to finding another job, or keeping the one they already have. As a result, they drift into taking a half-assed run at starting a business, without understanding the difference between cash flow and profit. And they see investment capital as an asset when actually it is a liability that has to be paid back. They think that their salvation will come from finding an angel venture capitalist, when the truth is that most VCs require a structure that enables them to take your company away from you as soon as you fail to make your projected numbers, whether those are in terms of gross revenues or profits or schedule for achieving a projected level of market share.
It's often said that most entrepreneurs who make it big, fail many times before they do. I don't know if that's really true. But I do know that entrepreneurs who have what it takes to keep plugging away, don't spend much if any time feeling sorry for themselves. Nor beating their breasts, asking for others to feel sorry for them.
For they know that the travails they experience are no more difficult than those faced by people who lose a job at 50+ years old, after years of hard and honest work as an employee. Nor any more difficult than those faced by a returning war veteran seeking to re-enter the workforce.
I have been a small businessman most of my working life. And I've also at times been a top-level executive for a couple of medium-sized companies, including one with 600 employees and more than $100 million in annual gross revenues. I've experienced the killer pressure of facing a $1 million per month payroll, and having to generate sufficient cash flow to keep the doors open. But I have never been, nor ever considered myself an entrepreneur. Maybe that is why I just don't get all the play for sympathy... or the willingness to provide it. For as I see it:
Free enterprise and its handmaiden entrepreneurship mean walking a tightrope without a social safety net. Consequently, if you can't take the fall, don't answer the call ...— Phil Friedman
Author's Notes:This post is the eighth in a series of philosophical reflections which I've dubbed "The Road Chronicles" because they are organized around the metaphor of travel along a road. If you would like to read one or more of the previous installments of the series, they can be found at:
"Living in Third Person"
"Finding Your Way Back to Intelligence"
on my beBee profile. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.
Feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other LinkedIn articles — whether on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, provided only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to my original post.
About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
To schedule an appointment for a free 1/2-hour consult email: email@example.com. I look forward to speaking with you soon.