Entrepreneurs are Built, Not Born
Business journalism is filled with stories that lionize “born entrepreneurs” who turned a childhood business into serious money.
These stories make it easy for people who think they don’t have inborn entrepreneurial gifts to feel like failures – or to be afraid to venture. But the good news is that successful entrepreneurship responds to nurture as well as nature. This is because entrepreneurial thinking can be nurtured.
“The thought patterns of an expert entrepreneur can be learned,” says Texas Tech Professor Ron Mitchell, who has studied this topic for over 20 years. “It’s about mind over matter.“
Mitchell points out that many researchers have looked in vain for an “entrepreneurial personality.” But entrepreneurial cognition studies have found that deliberate practice can program the brain and lead to expert mastery – just as the Beatles became a powerhouse band by playing five to eight-hour gigs in Hamburg clubs seven days a week. In five trips over 18 months they played 270 nights. John Lennon said, “We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long.”
Research over the past few decades has shown that entrepreneurship can be practiced and mastered because it’s not primarily based on inborn traits. Mitchell points out that most children have the curiosity and persistence to become entrepreneurs, regardless of inborn traits, but schools and society often discourage those behaviors, and so many of them disappear.
“And according to the research, you don’t have to be brilliant to be an entrepreneur,” Mitchell said. “Many experts in a variety of fields have moderate intelligence. You just need constant deliberate practice to achieve mastery.”
Mitchell has developed a set of questions, which he has used in dozens of languages and locations around the world, that can show how much a person has mastered entrepreneurship. How he or she responds to certain cues signals their expertise.
“These questions can distinguish, with exceptional accuracy, who are the entrepreneurs,” he says. “We found that those who have entrepreneurial expertise respond to the cues present in each question very differently from novices.”
For example, one question asks what that person would do if a business venture failed. The expert entrepreneurs would respond that they’d troubleshoot and try again; the novices say they would decide that venturing is not for them, and seek a job instead. While the response to just one cue is not enough, a pattern of mastery emerges when that cue is included within a statistically valid set.
“It is practice that builds the critical thinking skills that lead to such mastery,” Mitchell said. He cites he work of Anders Erickson, who has examined the idea that mastery is achieved through 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” -- a theme that also appears in Malcolm Gladwell’s acclaimed book, “Outliers.” “Expertise-enhancement university courses can reduce the time needed to become an expert entrepreneur; but experiential practice in these courses also is crucial.”
- Future entrepreneurs should not be discouraged by how other entrepreneurs are depicted in the business media. “The popular press often implies that entrepreneurs are a special breed, ” says Mitchell. “Everybody reads these stories and assumes, ‘I’m not one of them.’ ”Often, these ‘born entrepreneur’ stories exist to sell news or magazine articles. This actually can diminish entrepreneurship.”
- Business school teachers should go beyond imparting knowledge about entrepreneurship principles to students, who easily can find this knowledge themselves online. Students need more experiential learning so they can apply this knowledge in real-world situations.
- Entrepreneurs don’t need to risk everything to gain mastery. “You can build it a little bit at a time,” Mitchell says.
- Realize that becoming an entrepreneur primarily takes practice, and is less about inborn talent. “We can’t do much about ‘born,’” notes Mitchell, “but we can surely make a difference in ‘made.’”
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