“What the researchers find is that men are much more likely to be overconfident than women. When a female entrepreneur fails to reach her goal, she is likely to tell herself, OK, this is probably not for me. When a guy fails, he’s much more likely to say, it was just a blip. Let me try again.”
– Shankar Vedantam, NPR Morning Edition “Why are Women Less Likely to Become Entrepreneurs than Men?”
I had painted the wall at least ten times and yet it still had weird splotches and patterns. In spite of the new coats, the change in paints, the sanding, the priming and the repainting—it still had an unsightly unevenness. Each time I had geared up for the painting, I would steel myself for the task by thinking, “This will be it.” I would pump myself up for one last, perfect coat where the shadows wouldn’t obscure a keen shine. Where you could stand anywhere and see it was a well-painted wall, even and consistent.
This went on for weeks. “I’m almost done,” I’d say, taking a deep breath, staying up late one last time. Spending one more hour wrapping it up. One last push before I could stop. All I wanted was that satisfying ah….. look at that. All I wanted was to have it behind me. Have it done and done well.
My experience with the wall is not unlike how I felt when Betsy and I were writing and rewriting the proposal for Power Through Partnership. In our long saga of getting the book to market, there were so many times I thought when is this madness going to end? Any reasonable person could have made the case for cutting the cord—moving on to something else. The number of rejections made it clear we could stop. But we didn’t. We kept reaching out, putting ourselves out there, pitching. We couldn’t say “we’re done” once we had started on that road. There were too many stories to tell to have them spend the rest of their lives in file somewhere.
The other morning after dropping off my son at school, I heard Shankar Vendantam’s summary of recent research by Venkat Kuppuswamy at UNC and Ethan Mollick at the Wharton School at Penn. In trying to tease out why men still dominate as entrepreneurs, Kuppuswamy and Mollick tracked Kickstarter campaigns—looking at more than 90,000 project launches to see if they met their goal or failed. Their interest was in which entrepreneurs pitched new projects after an initial project either (a) failed spectacularly in terms of the gap between what was sought and what was received or (b) failed by a marginal amount—just shy of reaching the goal.
This is where the gender gap showed up dramatically. Men were far more likely to pitch a second project even when their first project tanked. Men’s perspectives tended to be “They don’t get me—they’ll see!” Women, on the other hand, tended to be more cautious. Even if their initial failure was a by marginal gap, they tended to see any failure as a predictor of future failure. Women in general seemed to be realistic about failure and ok stopping after the first go around.
But the rub is that rationality isn’t a predictor of success. “It isn’t always clear what’s going to work,” Vedantam noted. “So men fail more often than women reaching their goal, but because men are so overconfident, they try again and again and again. And, in fact, they try so often that at some point something sticks, they get funded, and they succeed.”
It turns out that the secret sauce of success might be in ignoring the data that gives you damn good reason to stop something. Beyond being lucky or the rare individual where success comes without sweat, irrationality must be at play. There is something in the doggedness, the willingness to “keep at it,” the belief that you can’t give up yet—even when you are so ready to give up. There is something in the overconfidence and “they’ll see” that eventually gets the wall painted so it isn’t cringe-worthy, gets the book out into the world and gets the entrepreneurial project funded.
This isn’t platitudinous. This is pushing you to get to the essence of who you are—what is important to you. What you believe about yourself. Are you a painter? Then paint the wall, over and over, trying new techniques, getting to the core. Are you a writer? Then write and rewrite, get rejected, frustrated, learn, write, research, write. Are you an entrepreneur? Then pitch and fail and fail and pitch. The cycle will not end.
But one day perhaps the wall will be done. The book will be published. The project will be funded.
And then you start it all over again.