Did you ever have a flicker of a great business idea, but before long you snuffed out its flame, thinking you just didn’t have the right entrepreneurial stuff? Why do some people succeed in turning their dreams into wildly successful enterprises while others find they flounder, flail and quake from the very start? Perhaps it’s a matter of nature vs nurture—or maybe not.
Those in the entrepreneurs are born camp note that highly successful individuals often display entrepreneurial traits early on. Take Steve Jobs, for instance, a college dropout who nevertheless became a rock-star in the field of computing. Jobs displayed his entrepreneurial chops while still in high school, building and selling blue boxes, devices that fooled AT&T’s long distance switching equipment and allowed his customers to make free (albeit illegal) calls.
The dream genes
For those lucky enough to possess entrepreneurial prowess, could it somehow be in their genes? Some, including Scott Shane, an entrepreneurship professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of the book Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life, say yes.
Shane, along with researchers at the Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, home of the UK Twin registry, studied self-employment among 609 pairs of identical twins, and compared it to self-employment among 657 pairs of same-sex fraternal twins.
Shane says that “with twins, it’s a matter of comparing the choices of the two siblings. Identical twins share the same genetic composition, while fraternal twins have half in common. If pairs of identical twins make more similar choices, such as starting a business, than pairs of fraternal twins, then genetics must affect the choices, as long as a few scientific assumptions hold.”
The study’s conclusion? Nearly half—48%—of an individual’s propensity to become self-employed is genetic. The operative word here, though, is propensity. While Shane also acknowledges that scholarship in this area is still in its infancy, he believes the genetic component of personality traits, such as extraversion or openness to new experiences, may predispose an individual to entrepreneurship.
Shane is also quick to note, though that “genes are not destiny. Having a genetic predisposition toward workplace behaviors does not mean that you are predestined to engage in them. Lots of people overcome their innate tendencies all the time.”
That’s precisely the point that Tina Seelig, a Stanford professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering makes in Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World. Seelig says that entrepreneurship can be taught, learned and practiced.
In Insight Out, Seelig proposes a framework that lays out a sequential path to help those struggling move from imagination to entrepreneurship. Her Invention Cycle emphasizes: “Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist. Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge. Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions. Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, to bring unique ideas to fruition, inspiring others’ imagination.”
Practice makes perfect
But like any well-rewarded effort, it takes practice. Seelig stresses that “honing the attitudes of the Invention Cycle leads to effectiveness, and mastering the actions results in inventiveness. Each set of traits is necessary but not sufficient—only when they are coupled together are you effective at bringing new ideas to fruition.
“The attitudes for effectiveness include being engaged, motivated, focused and persistent. The actions that influence inventiveness include envisioning, experimenting, reframing and inspiration.”
Raising the barn
Another element of success, she says, is building a team that’s on your side. “All significant accomplishments are like barn raisings—you can’t do them alone. …This involves encouraging others to join your team, fund your work, use your products and spread the word. This is equally true for artists, musicians, chefs, technology innovators and other entrepreneurs who want to reach a broader audience. Inspiring others to act is not about getting people to do the things you want them to do, but motivating them to want to do those things.”
All you need are the right set of tools and techniques, Seelig says, to gain the necessary skills to achieve entrepreneurial success.
So, are entrepreneurs born or made? Does it really matter?
If you’ve ever dreamed of being your own boss, of dipping your toes into uncharted waters, but were afraid of those self-imagined sharks, remember, it doesn’t really matter if you didn’t come from an entrepreneurial gene pool. As Franklin D. Roosevelt, an entrepreneur himself, who in 1927 founded the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation famously said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” You just might want to give entrepreneurship a shot; you may surprise yourself with skills and strengths—and a courage— you never even knew existed.