Martyr-Preneurship, or Too Many “Rebels” and Not Enough Cause

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Real failure is horrific. Why would we trivialize its menace? Or forget the cost of success?

One of these statements is better than the others.

  1. Failure is a universally accepted requirement for success.
  2. Learning from failure is a universally accepted requirement for success.
  3. LEARNING is a universally accepted requirement for success.

Harvard Business Review has coined the term “entrepreneurship porn” to describe the way in which self-employment – or the marketing and journalism that surround it – has become a rhetorical vehicle for wish fulfillment, in which “all work is always meaningful and running your own business is a way to achieve better work/life harmony.” Of course, there is no real ill to mitigate in the aggrandizement of success; survivorship bias is a fact of life in all human activity.  The real trouble with “entrepreneurship porn” is that it actively distorts, and ultimately dismisses, failure.

Now, I don’t mean failure in the sense of an operational setback or the closing of an avenue of progress. We all have heard of how many ways Thomas Edison found to not design the light bulb, and that kind of motivation is a virtue. I mean real failure, in its two most common forms of ignominy: (1) coming to the true end of capabilities to continue, with a measurable deficit between present assets/aptitudes and what is necessary for viability; and (2) reaching the end of denial that an undertaking was ill-advised, poorly thought out, shoddily executed, and irrelevant. I mean failure that costs real blood, treasure, and time. We users of human bodies are remarkably resilient, but our capacity for healing and indeed living is, in the end, painfully finite.

Acknowledging the risk of failure and the need to recover insightfully and without shame is perfectly noble. Pretending that failure, any failure, is a mere badge of honor, a lost virginity of little import to eventual success, is wantonly irresponsible to both Capital and Labor. On that note, I personally (as a Christian, and one with plenty of sins in his past life) appreciated the analogy to our “modern”, heavily oversexed and porn-positive culture. An “entrepreneur” with no traction and no inkling of either success or opportunity cost is engaging a fantasy life in the same way that a porn addict does. The criticism is the same as well: the echo chamber of mobile social retail apps or dirty videos, respectively, is a pitiable sort of slavery that pales in comparison to the real thing under healthier conditions.

I’m not picking on mobile apps in particular, or ventures of any specific type. Those who are doing good work surely feel nothing if/when they encounter the HBR article, other than perhaps a healthy fear. (Feeling Excited And Ready!) But it’s unavoidable that not everyone hits the mark. When we ignore the difficulties, when we pretend that entrepreneurship is low-cost and low-risk, and that everybody’s doing it (and there’s the analogy to conservative sexual morality again), we have essentially hurt people through negligence. If we allow failure to look appealing enough to be subsumed into the greater fantasy, it is success. Moreover, this “success” is easy. Talk big, throw some code, attend some events, repeat often enough to distract from the grievous self-injury being inflicted. When satisfied, get a real job (if still employable) and tell war stories. Congratulations, you’re a martyrpreneur. Delusion is the most native advertising there is. And it creates huge amounts of negative value.

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The world may need ditch-diggers, but why did blow your ha’penny on a sand castle when it’s obviously made of the same stuff you’ve been shoveling? Pay attention!

Granted, it’s not lost on me that much constructive entrepreneurship is self-actualization or even self-projection. Unfortunately, the will to discern and defeat unhealthy self-projection is rare in any environment; the entrepreneur’s ties to individualism and capitalism can engender self-deception even if the market itself vehemently discourages such vanity.

But I wouldn’t be writing this if the hype was going to stop. There are very expensive hot dogs beings sold at this circus. Reporters report, consultants consult, and contract developers contract to develop; with enough entrepreneurs, to ask of the quality of this work frankly misses the point. And there’s the rub: the more entrepreneurs, the more business can be gained from the feckless nobodies among them. Hope springs eternal; someone will always be trying and failing, or even just trying to try. No judgment passed here; I know from experience that startup failure can be James Altucher awful. The only difference between me and said feckless nobodies is the grace of God that I’ve been on this road long enough to hit the uncanny valley between annoyance at other people’s marketing and marketing my own insights effectively.

However cynical it may be, many successful entrepreneurs have realized that selling picks and shovels is a more lucrative and far easier business than actually mining. I can’t help but feel a little bit sad about it.

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