(Peter Crowther/For The Washington Post)

Geoff Lewis is a Partner at Founders Fund, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm.

Sit for a while at Reveille Coffee, a popular meet-up spot for entrepreneurs in San Francisco, and you’re bound to overhear claims like this one: “I failed my way to success. Whenever anyone asks me what the secret to success is, I tell them to fail. A lot. Keep failing. Eventually success will find you.”

That gem was from a young near-billionaire (on paper, at least), talking to an interviewer the other week. I don’t know if the interviewer bought it. But, at the next stool over, I nearly gagged on my coffee. I recoil when the merits of failure are so vastly overstated and its agonies are so trivialized.

America’s tolerance for failure stands in admirable contrast to cultures where a single failure automatically destroys your life. Indeed, our country’s comparative advantage — that America is the best place in the world to build new things, to innovate — is inexorably linked to our collective attitude toward failure. We fear it enough to try very hard to succeed, yet not so much that we don’t attempt new things.

However, the understated acceptance of failure that propelled Silicon Valley for decades has morphed into something dangerous: failure porn. “Failure” as fast fashion, peddled by wildly successful people, packaged for mass consumption, that is no more reflective of real failure than commercially produced pornography is of real sex. People seem to forget that start-up founders can endure years of psychological trauma for naught, employees can lose their jobs and investors can lose significant money. Rather than being a springboard to greatness, failure can simply be devastating.

Four years ago, I was alone in Atlanta to speak at a technology conference, in a desperate attempt to drum up customers for my then-struggling start-up. I hadn’t slept. On the phone the night before, one of my team members outlined all the ways in which I was a terrible chief executive and suggested that we consider scrapping everything we’d been doing. With my presentation an hour away, I needed $20 for food and a taxi, but thanks to $45,000 in credit card debt and an overdrawn bank account from a year of forgoing salary, the ATM wasn’t cooperating. I broke down in tears in front of the Chase Bank on Ponce de Leon Avenue — and then texted some friends from Founder Therapy, a support group we’d formed to help one another muddle through the wormhole between cataclysmic failure and monumental success.

One called me back right away. “How can I give this presentation when I feel like such a worthless fraud?” I asked her.

Without missing a beat, she said: “Giving this presentation is a victimless fraud. If you fail your team, your investors and yourself, you’ll be a real fraud as a leader.” Block all the emotion out, get up there and sell, she implored. That was the precise message I needed at that moment. A modicum of empathy but a refusal to indulge me with what my heart desperately wanted to hear: “It’s okay for you to quit now, Geoff. You can let go.”

I walked 40 minutes to the Marriott ballroom on an empty stomach, got up there and sold with all my might. We signed a transformational contract because of that conference and sold our company for eight figures less than a year later.

Gotcha: That was failure porn.

Real failure would have been my bailing on the conference and shutting down the company. But I didn’t — and packaging this experience as a real failure would merely serve as a humblebrag about my later success.

Over the past few years, a universe of publications battling for readers and a growing conference industry have encouraged failure porn stories, distributed en masse as one-size-fits-all bromides. Typical of the genre: “Failure is part of the success equation,” as billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban said recently, and “I am so good at failure, it’s like my specialty,” as real estate broker Barbara Corcoran has said. While these luminaries (and “Shark Tank” castmates) mean no harm, I wonder if they stop to consider whom their failure porn serves beyond themselves. Does Cuban’s catchy quote help my founder friend — now jobless and in thrice-a-week psychiatric therapy — who devoted her 20s to a start-up that went nowhere? Does Corcoran’s help the former Manhattan real estate broker whose failure to break through priced him out of New York entirely?

I’ve been similarly skeptical about FailCon — an annual conference launched in 2009 that unabashedly celebrates start-up failure. Back in 2010, Ade Olonoh, founder of Formspring, a then-high-flying social Q&A site, participated in a FailCon panel absurdly titled “Don’t Fail to Scale.” In a post-panel interview, he offered up the following advice: “Go ahead and fail at scaling because that’s an easier problem to solve than failing at finding the right product.” At the time, Olonoh was one of the most admired up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

I’m still unable to decode what he meant, and evidently Formspring was unable to as well. After raising more than $14 million in venture capital, the company did in fact “fail at scaling” and shut down in 2013. I imagine this was a painful conclusion for Olonoh and his team. Yet nobody really noticed. Just as excessive consumption of pornography desensitizes one to the joys of real sex, excessive consumption of failure porn desensitizes one to the horrors of real failure.

This fall’s FailCon in San Francisco was canceled because, as its founder told the New York Times, a conference seemed unnecessary when trumpeting failure has become so pervasive in Silicon Valley. She’s licensed the event in Brazil, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It’s against this backdrop that Eric Ries’s model of “The Lean Startup” has risen to prominence and become a mass movement. According to Meetup.com, there are more than 2,000 independent Lean Startup meetup groups with 560,000 members, and an additional 180,000 people interested in becoming members, across nearly 600 cities.

Ries advocates starting with a vision and then “pivoting” until your start-up finds the “product-market fit” that will enable it to realize that vision. In Ries’s view, “a pivot is a change in strategy, without a change in vision.” As long as a start-up has more hypotheses to test, it can continue to pursue its vision. The pivot, therefore, serves as a failure-avoidance mechanism.

Inconveniently, the most prominent examples of pivots cited by Ries — YouTube, Twitter and Groupon — don’t fit his definition. Each company flatly failed at achieving its initial vision and effectively relaunched in a different direction. YouTube went from a dating site to a video-sharing site. Odeo shut down its podcasting platform and reoriented behind the Twitter side project a few employees had been working on. (Twitter was so incongruent with Odeo’s vision that founder Ev Williams offered all Odeo investors their money back.) Groupon began as ThePoint, with the stated vision of “helping individuals to find solutions for issues collectively.” After the restart as Groupon, the company’s vision statement shifted to: “Become the operating system for local commerce.”

By recasting real failures as mere pivots, Ries gives short shrift to the extraordinary tenacity exhibited by the YouTube, Twitter and Groupon founders. And by offering the pivot as an omnipresent crutch, a movement that aims to help founders avoid failure inadvertently reduces the prospect of failure to an afterthought. Until it’s not. You don’t hear about the thousands of start-ups that fail to pivot their way to success each year. They die quietly.

The investor class is complicit in the rise of failure porn. Since the vast majority of a venture-capital fund’s returns come from one or two big hits, it’s a truism that most companies in any given investor’s portfolio will fail. So there’s a sense in which playing down the trauma of real failure to entrepreneurs can be good for business. Dave McClure once described his early-stage venture-capital firm, 500 Startups, in these terms: “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn. . . . If you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” I greatly admire McClure, but “manufacture fail” is nothing more than a great sound bite.

Empirically, it’s not clear that an entrepreneur can learn anything from failure. Even the most successful start-ups have multiple major problems — such as team conflict, destructive board members, no clear path to profitability, out-of-control marketing costs, lawsuits, lackluster product features and painfully long sales cycles — at any given time. Any of these issues, alone or combined, could lead to failure, so isolating the precise cause of failure and anticipating how to avoid it next time are almost always impossible. Three years after selling my first start-up, I’m still not sure why, despite our mild monetary success, we never achieved our vision.

As a venture capitalist, I’m happy to invest in founders who’ve failed, so long as they don’t indulge in failure porn. Indeed, I’ve observed that the most talented founders may mask their fear behind an extraordinarily confident exterior, but they acknowledge failure as a very real possibility and do everything possible to mitigate its risk. One founder I’ve backed told me that he’d learned “to only work on things where I’m freaking scared of failing, because that means the stakes are high.” When you believe your vision is important, celebrating failure of any sort would be perverse.

Another person who understands this is Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, whose rocket-ship company my firm, Founders Fund, is invested in. Musk readily admits, “I certainly have fear of failure.” And he has explained his vision to colonize Mars by saying, “I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.”

Twenty-four hundred miles from Silicon Valley sits the twin-tower headquarters of a company that makes not rocket ships but laundry detergent. Procter & Gamble dominates Cincinnati’s psyche, if no longer its skyline. It was here that I began my career, with a short-lived stint in brand management. The stakes were very low — one of my first projects involved changing a single word on the back panel of Tide’s packaging — yet the fear of failure in my department was nearly paralyzing. It took nine months, five consumer focus groups, two rounds of quantitative testing, three memos and two senior management presentations to gain approval for that word change. Everyone was so scared of screwing something up, lest we lose our shot at winning the prize on the horizon — a “promotion” in title alone or a 5 percent raise.

Meanwhile, our beloved chief executive, A.G. Lafley, was upstairs making fearless moves. He orchestrated multibillion-dollar acquisitions — Clairol, Wella, Gillette — and focused the company on “trading consumers up” into higher-priced, premium products to capitalize on the then-flourishing U.S. economy. When Lafley retired in 2009, he was hailed as one of America’s all-time-great CEOs.

Yet his many victories deflated alongside the finance and real estate bubbles that had propped up P&G during his tenure. Americans no longer wanted the premium products he had assembled, his acquisitions were poorly integrated, and his handpicked successor quickly lost the organization’s confidence.

Lafley, safely ensconced in retirement, entered the failure porn fray with a Harvard Business Review interview in 2011: “I learned more from my failures than from my successes in all my years as a CEO. I think of my failures as a gift.”

I’d venture to say that the nearly 10,000 P&G employees who have been or will be laid off in the wake of Lafley’s failures do not think of them as a gift. But failure is working out well for Lafley: He returned to P&G as chief executive in 2013 to save the company from collapse, and in his first year back he received $19.5 million in compensation. For Lafley, learning from failure simply means dismantling much of what he built: P&G is selling off about half of its brands; most of those rumored to be on the block were acquired by Lafley in the past decade.

“We’re a shell of our former selves. Everyone is scared of either being laid off or being relegated to a dead-end assignment,” a friend at the company recently confided to me. For all that’s changed at Procter & Gamble since I left, one thing remains the same: The only person in the twin towers not scared of failure is A.G. Lafley.

I’m proud to be a part of Silicon Valley now, because I believe that most of what originates here is immensely good for the world. Failure porn is not. When we become desensitized to what real failure entails, we underestimate the massive risks inherent in any new venture and become ill equipped to deal with the inevitable near-failures every start-up encounters. The failure pendulum has swung too far toward celebration. I’d like to see it swing back a bit toward fear. Toward something one can rebound from, something to be neither embellished nor marginalized, but rather something to be mourned and then moved on from: plainly, a tragedy.

Twitter: @justGLew

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