Born this Way: Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

Written by chicceo Published in

***Another fabulous article by our friends at NEXT for Women in honor of our celebrating female entrepreneurs for Women's History Month!

For as long as psychology has existed, its practitioners have debated the same tiresome question about human nature: is it (are we) defined by intransient internal properties, or by the external experiences that are thrust upon it (us)?

The general, if unsatisfying, consensus seems to be that Who We Are is determined by a strange and unfixed calculus that weighs both internal and external forces. We are products of both nurture and nature, though scientists haven’t yet cracked the mysterious code of how our genes weigh against our lifestyles in the course of personality-shaping.

That uncertainty about which, and to what extent, traits are inherited is giving new dimension to psychology’s oldest debate as researchers delve ever deeper into the genetic code. What was once academic, abstract, arcane, is now hard science with  real world applicability. Perhaps we can blame our annoying personality tics on an inescapable chromosomal combination; maybe we can learn to be more organized.

And in the business world, maybe we can foster an entrepreneurial spirit where it doesn’t exist naturally. The much mythologized entrepreneurial mind is nearly always described as an innate, almost inescapable, work of nature. There’s the Ivy Leaguer so stultified by the tedium of classes that he drops out to become a billionaire programmer; the high school whiz kid who makes thousands selling cigarettes and snacks from a locker store; the clothing designer who knows women  have been waiting for a spandex solution to muffin tops. The media and public imagination enshrine the archetypal American entrepreneur, and his risk-taking, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer, do-or-die spirit, as the ultimate embodiment of the American dream.

Romantic as that image is, however, business experts and psychologists alike believe that entrepreneurs aren’t just born. Oftentimes, they’re made.

According to Scott Shane’s 2010 book, Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders, entrepreneurial tendencies are about 48 percent “heritable,” or genetically influenced. That means that more than half of the qualities associated with entrepreneurial success -  independence, creativity, drive, passion – can be learned. As William & Mary psychology professor Kelly Shaver told Forbes, “I’d say the evidence that entrepreneurs have a particular personality ‘type’ is mostly unconvincing.”

In fact, many of the qualities possessed by “natural” entrepreneurs can be Achilles’ heels to business success. John Delmatoff, a California career coach, told Business Week that entrepreneurial energy and idea-chasing often distract would-be business owners from the sort of tunnel vision starting a new business requires.

“They focus their often limited resources on too many ideas simultaneously, none of which gets adequate attention, and the idea fails, or the entrepreneur gets bored easily in the idea development stage and starts looking for another idea to develop,” said Delmatoff.

In that same Business Week article, Philadelphia-based management psychologist David Weiman said that not-so-natural entrepreneurial hopefuls can learn the positive attitude and determination their more go-getting peers possess naturally. Shaver echoed the sentiment in Forbes when he related the natural entrepreneur’s optimism to her understanding of risk. Naturally entrepreneurial individuals, Shaver said, are blind to the notion that a risk might not end in reward.

“Being able to generate more unpleasant possibilities might be making non-entrepreneurs more afraid,” Shaver said,

Based on that logic, a non-entrepreneur’s learned optimism could overcome her risk-aversion, and push her into entrepreneurial territory. To develop positivity and persistence, Business Week recommends books like Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence for their step-by-step guides to self-awareness and confronting challenges.

Like most questions in the complex world of genetic research, the question of whether entrepreneurship can be learned doesn’t have a clear cut answer. There will always be genetic lottery winners who manage to grab up all of those inherently entrepreneurial traits – and then put them to good use after they’ve learned from experience. And there will always be non-entrepreneurs who are perfectly content not to seek self-employment.

It is the entrepreneurial hopefuls in between them -  who either want to stake out new ventures, but lack the innate skill set, or who innovate constantly, but haven’t learned to channel natural ability into professional success – whose entrepreneurial fates are less fixed. But, luckily, science is on their side. Even though entrepreneurial traits (and their successful application) might come more easily to some, extra effort and a desire to learn on the part of those for whom it does not make up the difference. Where there’s a will, future (learned) entrepreneurs of America, there’s a way.



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