I don’t know an entrepreneur who hasn’t failed. Sure, you might be look at an entrepreneur who has a successful company and a billion dollars and say “No, this guy isn’t a failure, no way,” but you would be mistaking failing with being a failure. Failing is a one-time event. It may happen again, it may not. A failure is someone who sees their failings as who they are, rather than what they’ve done. The failure says “No matter what I do, it’s not going to work out. Might as well not try.” The person who fails but persists in trying again says “Wow, that didn’t work out…learned some good lessons, now what’s next?” Or in the immortal words of Barney Stinson, “When I get sad, I stop being sad, and be awesome instead.”

Being A Failure Is A Choice
Failure doesn’t just happen to people, they choose it. After every setback, I can decide what I want to do. I’m not a failure until I give up and stop trying.

What About Quitting Stupid Things?
I don’t become a failure when I stop trying to accomplish a specific task, but when I stop trying to succeed generally. If I’m trying to do something, and it turns out to be a bad idea, there’s no shame in giving up that activity. It’s not noble to keep working on a business that has no chance of ever succeeding, or working on it in a way that has no chance of succeeding. Trust me on this one, I know from firsthand experience.

How To Be Helpless
A failure can’t be helped because he or she won’t let anyone help them, and helplessness can be learned. Don’t take my word for it, take Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s. Dr. Seligman is the co-creator of the Penn Resiliency Center, which teaches teachers techniques for becoming more optimistic in their own lives and teaches them how to pass on those techniques to their students. During the 60’s Dr. Seligman was part of the team that discovered “learned helplessness” by exposing cockroaches to tortur…err, experiments…ok, allow the Dr. to explain himself, “We found that dogs, rats, mice, and even cockroaches that experienced mildly painful shock over which they had no control would eventually just accept it, with no attempt to escape.” They then created experiments (without the use of electrical shocks) for humans that showed the same results. People exposed to unpleasant stimuli in one session would move to avoid it, in another would give up trying, and in the third session would quit trying at all. But what was most interesting to me about Dr. Seligman’s research was that about a third of the participants, both animals and humans, did not learn helplessness.

Optimism Is The Cure, And Optimism Is A Choice
Why did some people resist learning to be helpless? Dr. Seligman found that optimism was the key. “We discovered that people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable,” Dr. Seligman says. “That suggested how we might immunize people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure: by teaching them to think like optimists.”

You might say that a choice is not a choice unless one is conscious of the choice they are making. You might be right about that, but if that’s true then now you know, so even if nobody else is making a choice about being optimistic, you are. Sorry about that, but you’re stuck.

Awesomeness Is Also A Choice
Dr. Seligman’s speaks of resiliency in his work. Resilient people are those who, when exposed to negative stimuli, may have had a negative reaction, but soon bounced back to their normal selves. There appeared to be no permanent harm. That’s great, but some people Dr. Seligman studied not only recovered and returned to where they were, but their performance after the negative experience or experiences exceeded that prior to the negative experiences. If someone can take something bad, and not just recover, but say “You know what? Not only am I going to recover from this, but I’m going to be even more awesome than I was before!” Well, that’s pretty awesome.

Story Time
I know a few entrepreneurs who have done well. Bryan Johnson is a friend of mine who just sold his company, Braintree, to Paypal for $800M. I used to work for John Pestana and Josh James, the founders of Omniture which was acquired by Adobe a few years ago for $1.8 billion with a capital “B”. It would be easy for someone to look at these guys and say “Wow, some people just have it all. It just comes easy to them.” Yes, it’s easy to say that if you don’t know about the time when Josh James was living in a hut on the wrong side of the tracks with his wife and little girls, virtually broke, or the times Josh had to go begging to investors to keep his company alive with more funding, or the time they were going to sell it for $45M and the deal fell through (thank goodness). Bryan had his challenges in business as well. I don’t know of any successful self-made entrepreneur who had it easy. If they didn’t learn lessons from their successful business, they learned lessons from previous failings.

Second story. A few months ago my brother in law Jeff “Chappy” Chapman almost died in a motorcycle accident. He was in a coma for weeks. Miraculously (at least that’s the term the doctors have used), he lived, and now he’s been recovering in an amazing way. So far, so good. He’s showing exceptional resilience. His wife, my wife’s sister, has probably gone through more trauma than Chappy. Not to downplay being in a coma, but my personal opinion is that she’s been handed the harder part, given that she’s had to take care of their two kids, deal with him losing his job as a result of the accident, medical bills, and the stress of seeing a loved one almost die. If I had to choose whose shoes I’d rather be in, I’d take the coma. She’s also shown remarkable resiliency. That is, of course, priority #1 for both of them–getting back to some sort of normal.

But with my entrepreneur friends they didn’t settle for getting back to normal. They let the challenges come, they overcame them, and they went on to 10x normal. It didn’t just happen, they made it happen. For Chappy and my sister in law they’ve done amazingly well so far, but they have a long road ahead. I’m confident they’ll not just recover, but someday they’ll look back on this and say “We’re better people because of that accident.” Not that they or anyone else would be grateful for accidents or seek them out. And my entrepreneur friends certainly didn’t seek out the challenges they had. Nor do I purposely try to create challenges for myself in my business (all appearances to the contrary). But when accidents, challenges, quirks of fate, or acts of God come along, as they certainly will if you’re an entrepreneur, you might as well choose to make things awesome, because you can.