August 11, 2020

Gary’s Top Ten Resources for Understanding the Entrepreneurial Mindset

By: Gary Schoeniger


My interest in entrepreneurship comes from a behavioral perspective. I see the entrepreneurial mindset as a way of thinking that optimizes engagement in ways that extend beyond those who endeavor to start and grow new businesses. My goal is to understand the controllable cognitive, motivational, and situational factors that give rise to the development of entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills. I believe that if we can understand these underlying causes, we can create more robust, equitable, and resilient societies. 

With all of that in mind, here are some of the foundational resources, books, papers, and thinkers that have influenced me in my journey to deconstruct the entrepreneurial mindset. 

 1. The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, Amar Bhide

This book helped me to understand the entrepreneurial process from an empirical perspective. Entrepreneurs behave more like detectives trying to solve a mystery rather than gamblers or expert planners. Bhide’s findings closely matched what I found in my observation and analysis of everyday, “unlikely” entrepreneurs. Bhide also introduced me to the idea that the underlying logic of the entrepreneur, which is dictated largely by the highly ambiguous, resource-constrained nature of the entrepreneurial process, is distinct from the underlying logic of a large, established organization. The underlying motivation may also be distinct. 

Also read: Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s book The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company to better understand the entrepreneurial process and the detrimental aspects of formal business planning related to the entrepreneurial discovery process. 

2. Self Determination Theory, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan

Deci and Ryan’s work helps explain the underlying motivation of the entrepreneur, which is their search for basic psychological needs. Hint: it’s not money.

Entrepreneurs are likely to be intrinsically motivated by the goal itself. This helps to explain why they are so resilient, resourceful, and hyper-engaged when compared to average workers. SDT also helped me to understand how our systems of education and organizational structures often interfere with our intrinsic desire to learn, to contribute, and to grow. 

3. The Work of Martin E. P. Seligman

Specifically, his books:

Seligman’s work in positive psychology has also been very influential in my understanding of the underlying factors that drive entrepreneurial behavior. His research, combined with that of Deci and Ryan, helped me understand how entrepreneurs transform adversity into an advantage through post-traumatic growth.

Seligman’s concept of default helplessness not only helped me understand how we often mistake default helplessness for laziness but how to help people develop optimism, which is the greatest predictor of success. 

4. Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, George Land and Beth Jarman

 This book helped me to understand entrepreneurship from a macro perspective, contextualizing entrepreneurship as an opportunity discovery process. Also, the idea that each phase requires separate rules for survival and that the inability to recognize these contextual factors underlies maladaptive behavior.

Land and Jarman also stressed the idea that the attitudes and skills required to succeed during growth will likely be the underlying force that prevents us from adapting in the face of change. 

5. The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology, Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross

This book helped me to understand the subtle yet powerful factors within the person and the situation that influence our behavior without our awareness. It also introduced me to the Fundamental Attribution error. This is the idea that we tend to overemphasize the importance of dispositional traits when explaining a person’s behavior while ignoring the underlying factors that also influence our behavior. Between this and the work of Deci and Ryan, I came to see that non-entrepreneurial behavior is learned.   

6. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman’s work illuminated the mechanisms of the mind that can lead us astray. More specifically, how a mindset in motion tends to stay in motion through a series of predictable errors of judgment. These errors perpetuate our worldview as well as our view of ourselves.

Kahneman also demonstrates how our brains tend to rely on fast thinking—exploiting easily retrieved knowledge—rather than engage in exploratory thinking as a way to reduce cognitive load.

Additional reading: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, helps illuminate how we make decisions.

7. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, Peter Gray

Peter Gray’s work helped to illustrate the fact that humans, like other mammals, are equipped with both the desire and the capacity to learn everything we need to learn to adapt and thrive in our environment. He also demonstrates how formalized learning structures often interfere with our natural desire to learn. 

Additional reading: Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, also offers insights into how extrinsic rewards undermine our intrinsic desire to learn. 

8. The Work of Albert Bandura

Bandura’s pioneering work in self-efficacy beliefs helps us understand how our deeply-held beliefs can affect all aspects of our lives, largely without our awareness. His social cognitive theory was instrumental in understanding the need to expose students to relatable social models to encourage them to adopt entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills. 

9. The Work of Gary Klein

Klein is a cognitive psychologist who has studied how people make decisions in difficult, non-routine situations. His book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions is based on observations of humans acting under such real-life constraints as time pressure, high stakes, personal responsibility, and shifting conditions.

His book, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, helped illuminate the mechanisms of the mind that lead to insights.

Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making also helped to illuminate how over-reliance on rule structures can inhibit our ability to function in ambiguous situations. 

10. Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Timothy D. Wilson

Like Klein’s work, Wilson’s book also provides great insight into the mindset—specifically, how we make decisions without our conscious awareness.

In addition to Wilson’s perspective, check out the work of Dr. Ellen Langer to better understand how our minds can influence our behavior without our awareness. 

You can find our growing list of reference materials, case studies, and more on our Resources page and our Research Center. See how we are applying much of this foundational work by reading our blog.