Is Successful Entrepreneurship Nature or Nurture? It's Both. But Not Really.
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When you think of an entrepreneur, who do you picture? Do you imagine a stereotypical successful entrepreneur with a firm handshake, a bold personality, ample social charm and a larger-than-life attitude?
Most of us have this picture, at least partially, because many entrepreneurs do exhibit these qualities. It’s no secret that successful entrepreneurs share many qualities, including a degree of charisma and high levels of energy. You’ve probably identified people in your own life who might make good entrepreneurs, and you might have even used or agreed with the idea that someone could be “born to be an entrepreneur.”
But here’s the pivotal question -- is anyone truly born to be an entrepreneur? And if you weren’t born to be an entrepreneur, is it impossible for you to become one? Is successful entrepreneurship the result of certain pre-existing traits or the result of hard work? Or is it somewhere in between? Let’s explore.
1. Entrepreneurial diversity and media bias
The first thing I want to address is the perpetuation of entrepreneurial stereotypes. Yes, the media tends to report on many entrepreneurs who appear to be exuberant, charismatic, charming and confident to the brink of arrogance. But think about it -- don’t these types naturally attract or seek out media attention? Wouldn’t more introverted, down-to-earth entrepreneurs intentionally stay out of the limelight?
The truth is, entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, and if you’ve ever worked with a lot of startups, you’ll know this from personal experience. Men and women of all ages, backgrounds, education levels, belief systems, personalities and attitudes have started businesses, and no single group of factors can be cited for certain success or certain failure. Because of this, it seems unlikely that anyone can be “born” an entrepreneur or not an entrepreneur.
2. Serial entrepreneurs
As a recent study by Ernst and Young points out, most entrepreneurs who create one successful venture go on to produce at least one other one. Perform a reference check of how many successful entrepreneurs previously owned at least one business, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a genuine first-timer. This is because to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to have business experience -- something you can obtain no matter how you were born. I think we can score this one for the “nurture” column.
3. A sense of control
The same study referenced above also referenced that almost every entrepreneur surveyed exhibited a strong locus of control -- that is to say, they felt a strong connection of causality between their actions and results. There is a familial link to the psychological concept -- meaning those born into families with a strong locus of control tend to have one more than their counterparts, but it’s unclear whether this link is genetic or tied to an environmental factor.
Either way, the line is blurry. There’s some natural forces here, but a locus of control can still be nurtured to life.
The fact that most successful entrepreneurs have owned at least one other business is telling: Successful entrepreneurs are tenacious. Assume you have a pool of 1,000 entrepreneurial candidates, all with a decent idea for a business. Half of them will confront and then dismiss the idea, leaving 500 willing to keep going.
Another half will let their friends, family, or coworkers talk them out of it, leaving 250 willing to keep going. After the subsequent obstacles of writing a business plan, quitting your job, acquiring funding and your first big on-the-job hurdles, only a tiny fraction of the population -- the most tenacious -- will remain.
There’s a genetic component to tenacity, like any personality trait, but tenacity starts with a decision: The decision to keep going even though something’s hard or risky. You can make this decision regardless of what decision your genetics might predispose you to make.
5. The luck factor
Though I would argue that most successful people actually make their own luck, there is a circumstantial degree of luck that many entrepreneurs would agree they’ve experienced. They’re in the right place at the right time to find an investor, or they time their launch perfectly, or they come up with an idea just in the nick of time.
A Harvard Business Review article even explored the idea that most CEOs are victims of luck rather than makers of their own success or failure independently. This is important to remember -- because luck doesn’t care about your genes.
There is a genetic component to successful entrepreneurship. Some people are born a little more tenacious and with more locus of control than others. But everything you need to be a good entrepreneur -- experience, grit, luck, discipline, knowledge, etc. -- you can earn for yourself.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter whether genes can increase your chances of being successful. With effort, anyone can be.