Friedrich Nietsche famously said that to live was to suffer. As small businessmen and women, most of us have had to learn to work through personal business suffering and I believe it is a specific and important resource that can be and needs to be absorbed and creatively integrated into every entrepreneur’s psyche for success.
We entrepreneurs and small business folk have increasingly come to understand the role of failure, even multiple failure, in our success. Entrepreneurial failure has even become a “back-door” brag for some. (Note FailCon, a series of conferences where successful tech movers and shakers now share stories of their defeats.)
But the real value of failure is not that it may lead to entrepreneurial success, happiness, and freedom, though it can and does. No. The real gift of failure is learning the creativity, freedom, and centering that is released by any act of authentic suffering which underlies the many failures of most of us—of business, of strategy, of leadership, of faith, etc. It is a lonely and autodidactic process.
“Wise men in every tradition tell us that suffering brings clarity, illumination; for the Buddha, suffering is the first rule of life, and insofar as some of it arises from our own wrongheadedness—our cherishing of self—we have the cure for it within….I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency: when he was a boy, he said it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.”
I am not a masochist. (Well, maybe I am…but that’s between me and my therapist.) There is nothing fundamentally ennobling about failure. Sometimes it’s just a bummer we need to quickly shake from our sandals. But what suffering does is deepen our beings to levels transcending failure. Levels that open us to the New—to soulfulness, to creativity, to richer human and scientific truth and, dare I say it, to God. Indeed, suffering shakes our, perhaps necessary yet limiting, hubris, and, more, rearranges the very molecules of our personal capitalist process. One might say all of human progress is in man’s cumulative ability to somehow keep failing “up.”
We entrepreneurs are not in charge of our suffering. It may tip-toe in on the little cat’s feet of loneliness and inner-emptiness. Or with all the bombast and humiliation of a public bankruptcy. But our specific experiences of suffering (and failure is the most prominent form of it for the entrepreneur) also release true primordial passions that are the essence of business creativity.
The hardest thing for most of us is to find the courage to muddle through our morasses of suffering, to a quiet sea of new beginnings. I’ve always thought simple courage, the courage to persist, was the key quality for most of us who attempt to create a business.
We live in a balkanized world, increasingly without intrinsic societal institutions for creating value. One of the great gifts open to the entrepreneur in such an anomic society is to create her/his own center of of cultural meaning and personal value in a business entity. But it takes willingness to suffer. It takes soul courage.
As The Cowardly Lion sings in the movie of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” Indeed. Thank you, L. Frank Baum.