August 1, 2018

How to Think (and Act) Like an Entrepreneur

By: Gary Schoeniger
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Part 1/8

What is it that enables entrepreneurs to identify opportunities that others overlook? And how do they mobilize the resources and marshal the resilience, the creativity, and critical thinking that enables them to transform their ideas into thriving new businesses that not only generate wealth, but create new jobs, revitalize their communities, transform their organizations, or reinvent their careers?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by the entrepreneurial mindset – not so much the larger-than-life icons of Silicon Valley – but the everyday “unlikely” entrepreneurs – the underdogs and the misfits who may not have big ideas, access to venture capital investors, or advanced degrees – yet somehow manage to succeed. In short, I wanted to understand how underdogs win.

My initial thought was that if I could somehow deconstruct the mindset and the methods of the everyday entrepreneur it could be helpful to others – not only to aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners – but to anyone who may be searching for a pathway towards a more prosperous and meaningful life. Perhaps it could also be useful to those who seek to cultivate entrepreneurial thinking in their students, their organizations, or their teams.

Like a detective trying to solve a mystery, I set out to interview the underdog entrepreneurs to understand not only how they do what they do, but why – what were the underlying beliefs and assumptions, as well as the circumstances that were driving their behavior? Little did I know, I was about to embark on a journey that would forever change my life.

In this eight-part series, I will describe eight core concepts distilled from hundreds of hours of interviews. As you will see, they are deceptively simple concepts that anyone can embrace.

Part One: The Power of a Compelling Goal

Among the hundreds of entrepreneurs I interviewed, one thing that stood out was that they all seemed to articulate a vision, something they were striving to achieve. And, what most failed to realize is that by doing so, they were tapping into an extraordinary power; the power of a compelling goal.

Having a compelling goal can shift our perspective and change our behavior in ways that can have a profound impact on our lives. Similar to the awareness of a threat, a compelling goal elicits a psychological and physiological response that energizes and engages us in ways that can enable us to accomplish extraordinary things.

For example, a compelling goal is likely to elicit intrinsic motivation, thus enabling us to become more focused and engaged, creative, resourceful and resilient. Those who are intrinsically motivated are driven by innate curiosity, a desire to seek challenge, to learn and to grow, while those who are extrinsically motivated are driven by fear of punishment or the promise of external rewards (carrots and sticks). Numerous studies suggest that those who are intrinsically motivated (driven by meaning and purpose) tend to outperform those who are extrinsically motivated by money, letter grades, or other external (separable) rewards. In fact, external rewards have consistently shown to undermine intrinsic motivation. (Research also suggests that challenging goals tend to elicit higher levels of performance than easier goals.)

The pursuit of a compelling goal is also likely to foster an internal locus of control – a subtle shift in perspective that can also have an enormous impact on our behavior. In psychology, the term locus of control refers to the degree to which we believe that we have control over the outcome of events in our lives. (Those with an internal locus of control believe they are responsible for their actions while those with an external locus of control believe they are driven by outside forces that are beyond their control.) While these beliefs are often deeply-held and largely unconscious, they can make an enormous impact on our behavior.

Simply put, a compelling goal orients both our conscious and our unconscious mind towards a more positive future. It empowers us to choose the life we imagine rather than accepting things as they are. It instills within us an optimistic outlook that in turn, helps us develop the resilience and the resourcefulness required to rise above our circumstances and to overcome the challenges and setbacks that we are sure to encounter along the way. In other words, a compelling goal elicits hope, which Gallup defines as the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with the belief that we have the power to make it so. And, according to Gallup, hope is a better predictor of success in school than any other conventional measure. It can also help companies prosper.

Without a compelling goal, we are more easily distracted and therefore more likely to spend rather than invest our discretionary time, energy, and resources. Without a compelling goal, we are much less likely to go the extra mile, to show up early and stay late, we are much less likely to take it upon ourselves to develop our innate abilities, to challenge ourselves, to learn, and to grow. In the absence of a compelling goal, we are much less likely to develop the resilience and the resourcefulness required to persist when faced with difficulties. In other words, without a compelling goal, we are much less likely to develop entrepreneurial attitudes and skills. And without those skills, we are much less likely to impact the world.

“He who has a strong why to live for can bear almost any how.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The world has changed in ways that now require everyone to think like an entrepreneur. Yet, too often we misattribute the entrepreneurial mindset to a unique personality or hereditary traits – things over which we have little or no control – while ignoring the social, environmental, and situational factors that can either encourage or inhibit the development of entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills. And by doing so, we may be overlooking a vast reservoir of untapped human potential, not only in ourselves, but in our children, our students, our workforce, and our teams.

Therefore, if we are to understand and embrace entrepreneurial thinking, we should begin by asking a simple question: Do you have a compelling goal? Is there something on the horizon that you are striving to achieve? If not, why not?

After all, having a compelling goal is simply a matter of choice.