I can recite to you too many stories about success in business –

I’ve memorized them, I wear their hope like an emblem, and I’ve tracked their decisions and held up their moments of intuition like a holy grail of what successful entrepreneurs should aspire to be.

Anyone who has reviewed as many Harvard Business School cases as I have can do similar — the stories, however different they are from each other, promulgate themes of business success (i.e. bookoo bucks and prowess). They’re the greatest stories told of the companies that have made the biggest splashes, fallen or emboldened as they may be today since their publication date. It’s the nature of the honor of having your story become an HBS case.

However, each case ends with a semicolon; there is a pause as the reader evaluates the executive’s teams decisions and paths in front of them, and we’re suspended in a moment of empathetic fear, although we often know how the story ends. This moment of suspension is the wide open space between a decision or course of action that would necessitate success or failure – one, or the other, in this black and white business world.

And we know this moment of suspension – between the present and the (better) future – from our past experiences. We’ve felt it before we opened the decision email from our dream graduate school, or when we flipped over our AP Statistics exam in high school to reveal the red mark on the top of the page. There have been moments of suspension in situations we felt like we could control and those we couldn’t. So much of what predicates our standing in the world as prodigies or flops is entirely contextual, dependent on schemes of comparison in the patchwork of the human race to the top.

I like to say that it’s easy to preach that everything happens for a reason when we’re in moments of absolute certainty – when we can look back and connect the dots, as Steve Jobs spoke of. But it’s harder in these moments of suspension to practice the preaching, because no one has ever felt secure when tiptoeing across a tightrope. Perhaps that’s what is so startling about a venture into entrepreneurship. The ambiguity itself is a moment of suspension that shows no clear finish line. No matter how much we think we can control an outcome with the tenacity of our work, the prestige of our team, and the expansiveness of our network, failure often feels like it’s just around the corner.

So, what separates the entrepreneurs who succeed from those who fail?

It appears to me that, rather than one common benchmark of public acquisition or sellouts or our face sprawled on the cover Forbes, responses to failure directly correlate with one’s mentality. Entrepreneurs are equipped with robust mental strength. It urges us to believe, beyond a shadow of the doubt, that our startup is one of the 10% that makes it past the first year. And it urges us to slam that last espresso shot and take the all-nighter like a champ.

Entrepreneurs are acrobats, magicians, artists and creators that finagle the current state of their reality and craft it in their very hands to transform it into something better. Perhaps that’s why, when failure is posed to a group of entrepreneurs, they don’t answer it the way that you’d expect.


Failure is…

“A push to reflect on your process, and reframe your mentality.” – Carly Stern

“Accepting mediocrity because it’s the path of least resistance.” – Max Le Merle

“Not achieving what you thought you wanted.” -Ankit Verma

“Progress and a part of the process.” -Grant Enright

“A sign you’re getting closer.” -Dylan Gambardella

“Your greatest learning opportunity.” -Ben Markoch

“A door for creative solutions.” -Meghan Sharkus

Long gone are the days where failure meant throwing in the towel.

These responses echo a theory called the “Theory of Effectuation”, in which Dr. Saras Sarasvathy analyzes the difference in thinking between managers and entrepreneurs. It comes down to a difference in perception of causality. Managers see the future as something they cannot control, so they begin with a prediction. They see the end – it’s an understanding rooted in logic, in numbers, in financial projections and an analysis of the market. From there, they seek to control how they will operate with this inevitable ending in mind.

But entrepreneurs think differently. They think, first, with the beginning – the here and now, the moment of suspension. They know that if they shift techniques, pivot a little, work a bit harder or seek out proper coaching and sponsorship, the future is in their hands. They don’t seek to predict the future – they seek to control it. That’s why failure doesn’t phase them. It’s just a chance to rethink current tactics and control the future better from here.

This medley of learning and redirection that comprise the new politics of failure don’t just sound less tragic than the old politics, but they make failure seem like an experience worth seeking out. How many of us can throw off the shackles of the way we were taught to evaluate failure, yell “Man overboard!”, and jump off ship? This headlong dive into uncertainty – an ocean of eternal moments of suspension – is what separates the entrepreneurially-minded people from the rest.

After all, isn’t it those of us who yearn for a challenge that even entertain the concept of starting a business? That type of leap is something only the crazy will pursue. And it’s the entrepreneurs that keep leaping, keep daring, and crave that ambiguity that ultimately make it.

And those aren’t just the politics of failure. Those are the politics of success


  • Haley Hoffman Smith

    Speaker & Author of Her Big Idea

    Haley Hoffman Smith is the author of Her Big Idea, a book on ideation and women's empowerment which debuted as a Top 3 Bestseller. She has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Washington Examiner, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown in May 2018. She is the founder of the Her Big Idea Fund in partnership with Brown's Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, which awards grants to women who apply with BIG ideas, and Her Big Lash, a cosmetics company.

    At Brown, she was the President of Women’s Entrepreneurship and started the first-ever women’s entrepreneurship incubator. She speaks on topics such as women's empowerment, innovation, social impact, and personal branding regularly across companies and college campuses, most recently at Harvard, TEDx, SoGal Ventures, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and more.