The Genes or the Classroom?


So now even the BBC is getting in on the age old debate. Are entrepreneurs born or made? Is it nature or nurture? Is it in the genes, or is it in the classroom?

The argument rumbles on and the battle lines are fairly well drawn up. Entrepreneurs, by and large, say that it’s an inherent characteristic – you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Try suggesting to Alan Sugar or Duncan Bannatyne that they’d have done better with some training. And then perhaps retreat a few paces…

On the other side stand the academics, largely arguing that training and education is the main determinant of success. According to Brian Morgan of Cardiff Metropolitan University, “Sixty per cent of the competencies needed to create a successful and sustainable business have to be acquired.”

And in the middle stands … Ed Reid.

I work with entrepreneurs all the time – and clearly I have a vested interest in the ‘nurture’ side of the debate. And yet I know that the true entrepreneur has a quality that simply can’t be taught.

Are entrepreneurs ‘born?’ Maybe, maybe not. What I do think defines the entrepreneur is his or her attitude to risk – which can come from nature or nurture. In my experience all entrepreneurs are willing to accept risk: no-one running a business has a continually upward path and the number that I know who’ve come perilously close to losing it all is remarkably high. What sets the entrepreneur apart is that they’re prepared to accept that risk: the possibility of going right back to square one and starting again.

Some entrepreneurs may well be born that way. I suspect though a much larger number are exposed to something in their development which encourages an acceptance of risk. It’s interesting – and hardly surprising – that many entrepreneurs have a parent who was self-employed or who ran a business. There are also a significant number of successful entrepreneurs who report an early trauma in their life, such as the death of a parent or their parents separating. Similarly – as we’ve noted before – entrepreneurs contain a far higher proportion of people with dyslexia than the general population.

Dyslexia is obviously a ‘nature’ factor: your parents divorcing is nurture. What they have in common is that they’re problems that need to be overcome. And maybe overcoming them at an early age instils a belief that all problems can be overcome: that they’re not problems at all – they’re challenges.

So Brian Morgan is right – in part. 60% of the competencies can be learned. But there’s an element that can’t be learned. And even if this element is only 1%, it’s the 1% that holds everything else together. It’s a cliché, but the day comes for every entrepreneur when they have to go the extra mile. And then turn right round and do it again. That’s when no amount of training can help, because no amount of training can implant a basic will to win: a basic bloody-minded refusal to be beaten.

It’s that 1% that allows an entrepreneur to say you’ve either got it or you haven’t – but which gives enough scope to allow the academics to claim that the majority of the necessary skills can be taught.

As you know, I play golf. I’m OK, but I have my faults – and occasionally I go down to the driving range and hit 100 balls to try and correct the faults. At the end I’m tired – and then I remember reading about Greg Norman, who’d go to the driving range and hit 700 balls a day. Who’d hit golf balls until his hands started to bleed…

That’s the one quality that all successful entrepreneurs have: an absolute determination to succeed at the one thing that only they do best. Does that come from nature or nurture? In my opinion, it can come from both.

Do I think that every entrepreneur can be more successful with training? Yes, absolutely.

But do I think that someone without the necessary drive, flair and willingness to take a risk can be turned into an entrepreneur with training? No, sadly I don’t.

Over to you…

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One comment

  1. simonjhudson · July 19, 2013

    ‘The Kid’ Ted Williams, the ‘legendary’ baseball player (who I had never heard of prior to reading a book about Nikola Tesla) strongly denied having any natural; talent. Like Greg Norman he practiced every day for years, spent his pocket money on getting kids to throw for him, played in the dark, swung until his hands bled. It’s not that he had no aptitude at all, but he had to work his arse off to become great; he had to keep going when others gave up, he had to keep going when others said he was a failure and, indeed, when he failed.

    I believe there is much merit in the ‘10,000 hour’ rule suggest by Dr K Anders Ericsson; that’s the time it gets to acquire expertise in something (and about the amount of time I have invested in my guitar playing as it happens). As entrepreneurs we need to start practicing our various skills and building on them hour by hour, ignoring the road-bumps and naysayers, until we emerge with ‘suddenly revealed’ expertise.

    The difference with being an entrepreneur (largely unlike being a sports person or musician) is that our environment changes all the time and we must continually redevelop our skills to meet these changes. Our genes remain the same, but who we are and what we can do is ever evolving.

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