Entrepreneurs – Are they born or made?
April 25, 2010 1 Comment
After a little bit of an online debate, Mark Suster and Vivek Wadhwa got together at Standford to carry on discussing Nature vs Nurture in person. I tend to agree with many of the things Mark and Vivek talk about, but in this case I think the discussion exposed an interesting subtopic. Perhaps they would have gotten to it given enough time to debate, but absent that opportunity, I will try to do it justice here.
For starters, I should say that I fundamentally agree with what seemed like the middle ground of this argument and one of Vivek’s main points. Assume that you believe entrepreneurs can be taught, but you believe there is a threshold of intelligence required to learn the necessary skills to be successful. This seems reasonable, but why? Where does the required broad aptitude come from? I would argue that the desire for knowledge, the ability to obtain and understand it, and the skills to apply it are prerequisites to successful entrepreneurship. I am not qualified to argue if these are innate or learned characteristics, but I believe they underscore the larger discussion.
The desire for knowledge
When I wake up in the morning, I have a burning desire to learn more about the subjects I am currently studying. Obtaining knowledge is a fulfilling activity for me, especially because I see so many opportunities to learn (note the name of this blog). If you don’t burn to learn, it is hard to expect that you will find enough of the knowledge necessary to succeed in entrepreneurial endeavors. This complements the oft quoted entrepreneur quality of hustle. Once you have learned, if you can’t hustle, you can’t succeed. However, all of the hustle in the world won’t help a person that hasn’t spent enough time learning.
Obtaining and understanding knowledge
Wanting to learn is one thing, but finding the right subjects and being able to understand them is another. A successful entrepreneur needs to be able to understand topics that cover the core competencies of business administration, some specific market, and the problems of customers in that market. The process of obtaining information can vary from social discovery to formal education. Consider that for many students in higher education, this is only half the battle. Students may struggle to establish a sufficient foundation for their newly discovered knowledge and thus aren’t able to fully understand its implications. In other words, for a desire for knowledge to prove fruitful, the relevant topics must be found, consumed, and understood.
Ability to apply knowledge
Thinking back to high school, there was always at least one person in an advanced class that was out of place. They would listen to the lecture and take notes dutifully, but once they tried to solve progressively more challenging or nuanced problems individually, they were stuck. These students could typically be found asking others to share how they achieved a proper solution. If you gave these students the pattern and explained it clearly, they could apply it to that same problem type flawlessly. But once things changed, they weren’t able to visualize the solution. To them, applying knowledge was like using a hammer, nail, and wood when asked to connect the pieces of wood. For the successful entrepreneur, applying knowledge is like using a hammer, nail, and wood to build a house.
The entrepreneurs journey is partly a set of patterns and the successful traveler must be able to wield their knowledge as tools. As new situations and experiences present themselves, the entrepreneur must use their knowledge in abstract ways.
So, whether you believe entrepreneurs are born or taught, my bet is that you can trace it back to what you believe about the above three characteristics.
I caught a little flak for not saying which side of the fence I fall on, so here you go. For me, it is sort of like math. I can’t begin to count the number of times in my life that peers have told me they just can’t do math. Since a pretty young age, I have been teaching others how to approach math so they could better teach themselves. While I only had a dozen or so subjects, I never failed to improve the math grades of someone I worked with, especially after they moved on to later math courses/applications. However, there is a surprising part of the population that thinks math understanding is innate. It isn’t. And neither is entrepreneurship.