Many of our favorite success stories follow the “hero’s journey.” This isn’t unique to the world of entrepreneurship, but there is one particular “hero’s journey” tale that is incredibly popular right now, is intimately tied to entrepreneurship theater, and that we should all examine a little more closely.
The “hero’s journey” is the traditional story arc of any hero story. To drastically oversimplify the concept (because that’s what I do here in the Honest About Entrepreneurship segment to keep things short), the hero is called to some sort of adventure, typically because they are somehow different from and superior to their peers. They then face some crushing challenge that almost defeats them but they are able to bounce back and succeed again. That’s the arc…the hero’s doing well, then gets the shit kicked out of them, then rises again and is even more successful because of what they learned during the fall.
In the entrepreneurship space currently, the hero’s journey is often told like this: “blah, blah, blah useless details about childhood, and I was a (multi)millionaire by the time I was [insert age between 28 and 35] and then I lost it all. Now I’m [insert some boastful description of the success of their current business, which is about teaching other entrepreneurs about 90% of the time].”
There are a couple of issues here though.
Firstly, if you look at the timing of these “millionaires'” stories, they’re always people who were real estate “millionaires” right before the crash. Some admit they made the money in real estate, some don’t until you’ve researched them, but none of them admit that their millions weren’t real; they were millionaires on paper because of a real estate bubble that many people saw yet these people didn’t, meaning they’re not the best at assessing and managing risk.
Secondly, they’re missing the key element of the hero’s journey, which is what they learned from their huge stumble. When I hear these stories told at conferences and events, not once have I heard the person talk about why those millions were so easily lost and what they’d do differently this time around. The story is told as proof that they can make millions, but I want some proof for why I should trust them not to lose it all again.
In the entrepreneurship space, we talk a lot about failing fast and about not being ashamed of failures. That’s all predicated on the concept of learning from those failures, however, so when people tell these stories and aren’t honest about what actually happened and don’t discuss what they learned, they’re completely missing the point. I have no problem with someone who made and lost money in the financial crisis, what I do have a problem with is someone who tells that story as if it qualifies them to be a role model for other entrepreneurs when they’re skipping the most important part of the hero’s journey: learning something and becoming a better person.
We as entrepreneurship support professionals should be sure to promote the stories of those who are most honest about their entrepreneurial journeys and who recognize the importance of constant self-reflection and growth instead of giving a platform to another person who wants to share the same old hero’s journey while skipping over the part that actually makes the protagonist a hero.