From Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, Similar Personality Traits Emerge: How Do Yours Compare?
The entrepreneurial personality type has been rigorously studied, and experts have identified shared traits that typify who is (or isn't) cut out for entrepreneurialism.
What entrepreneurs can do — and what they feel they must do — is deeply rooted in personality.
Entrepreneurs are cut from a different cloth, and there are more of them than ever. News cycles regularly feature the latest startup that has been funded and sent to the market.
Businesses less than one year old contributed more than 3.1 million jobs in the U.S. in 2020.
Gig workers, freelancers, consultants, analysts and more have been given a huge advantage as remote work becomes normal and widely accepted. This means that entrepreneurs may have more opportunities than ever to give life to their big ideas.
Because of the increased prevalence of new and innovative businesses, many experts and forecasters are revisiting research from the past decade about entrepreneurial personalities.
Entrepreneurial personality traits
The Harvard Business School has a working paper called “Personality Traits of Entrepreneurs.” In it, the three authors review literature about the personality traits of entrepreneurs, first considering the Big 5 Model of human motivation as well as risk attitudes, goals, aspirations, locus of control and the need for achievement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who start new businesses share a lot of common characteristics.
These characteristics follow three core themes, sometimes taken together as an “entrepreneurial orientation”: distinct personality traits, including self-efficacy and innovativeness; a unique attitude toward risk, which may be misinterpreted as overconfidence; and shared goals and aspirations.
The authors of that paper draw a line of difference between entrepreneurs and managers. Entrepreneurs are not just great leaders or capable administrators: They deviate from common leadership patterns.
Researchers found that entrepreneurs were more conscientious, similarly extroverted and more agreeable than managers. Entrepreneurs are consistently more open to experience, changing environments and new challenges than managers, and they're also extremely achievement-oriented, but are drawn to environments where success is attributed to their efforts, rather than an institution.
Two illustrations: Jobs and Musk
Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are practically entrepreneurial archetypes at this point. They are helpful by way of illustration because of the quantity of commentary that exists on their lives and personalities.
Steve Jobs was obsessive, ambitious, results-oriented and an absolute visionary. Over the course of his career, he was awarded 140 patents, and then awarded 141 patents posthumously. It’s clear from numerous biographical works that Jobs was a driven man, relentlessly curious and endlessly productive.
In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.” That restlessness, or internally motivated quest for fulfillment, very much aligns with research about the entrepreneurial personality.
Elon Musk is a very different kind of entrepreneur, but also one about whom much is known. Musk owns, co-owns or runs some of the most disruptive companies in the world. His passionate pursuit of novel technologies is aimed toward a long-term goal of colonizing Mars. There is scarcely a bigger vision possible, but Musk’s laser focus, tireless work ethic and thirst for more have resulted in incremental steps toward fulfilling that vision.
Musk has an interesting quote about work and productivity: “The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing just sounds like the worst. It sounds horrible to me. I would go bonkers. I would have to be on serious drugs. I’d be super-duper bored. I like high intensity.”
From research to the real-world, entrepreneurs have this in common: They want to work. They like to work. They are discontent, even restless or unhappy, when not working hard toward a goal they believe in.
Researching the entrepreneurial personality
Researchers aren’t just aggregating psychological or behavioral data. Novel datasets, generated by users themselves, are found in places like the LinkedIn Employer-Household Database and other frontier administrative datasets.
Analysts are tracking groups of people who go through entrepreneurial training programs, keeping tabs on who’s getting venture capital financing and even deploying surveys among people in the gig economy and co-working spaces. The goal? To get a broader view of who entrepreneurs are, why there seem to be more of them and how it will impact global economies.
Startup culture and entrepreneurship
There have always been out-of-the-box thinkers, from DaVinci to Einstein to Zuckerburg. But people with entrepreneurial personalities in the 21st century have a unique environment in which to exist and create: the startup culture.
There is an intellectual and cultural fascination with the startup culture, with some experts claiming it is only fad and others saying it represents the decentralization and democratization of world commerce. Whatever the nature of the culture, entrepreneurs have perhaps never had a better chance to play a key role, as long as they are allowed and encouraged to try.
Mentality and motivation
At the end of the day, all of the analysis about entrepreneurial personalities is interesting, but does it matter? In essence, these appear to be a set of people, uniquely oriented to hard work, new ideas, high risks and massive ambition.
While the startup culture has given entrepreneurs more opportunities, the world is also in a more critical state than ever before. The internet has changed life as we know it, creating open access and endless chances for every person in any country to contribute to world affairs and markets.
Many people look at the disruption in economics, policies, digitalization, emerging technology and more as a positive shift, but disruption can lead to destabilization. The stakes are higher than ever, with more countries and market sectors than ever relying on “what’s next” to make it through what’s happening now.
In a global context of disruption, where the next moves may be unclear even to those in power, entrepreneurs may be the only ones willing to take the risks that will make all of the difference.
Apparently, it’s in their nature to do so.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor