By Paul Morin
A question I get quite frequently is, “Can entrepreneurship be taught”? It’s a tough question and the answer is highly dependent on how you define “entrepreneurship,” so let’s start there. If you look in Webster’s dictionary online (http://www.merriam-webster.com), there is no separate definition forentrepreneurship, but here’s the definition you find for entrepreneur:
One who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.
Frankly, I find that definition a bit lacking, as it’s very dry and does not embody any of the spirit or mindset it takes to be an entrepreneur.
If you take a look at first the definition of entrepreneur on thefreedictionary.com it’s similarly unexciting and dry, but a bit further down there is another definition that is more in line with the way I think about entrepreneurship. That definition is:
The owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits.
This one appeals to me a bit more, because entrepreneurship is all about taking initiative, and the motivation for taking that initiative and assuming the related risks, is usually to make profits.
We could wordsmith the definitions of entrepreneur and entrepreneurship all day long, but the definition above should be sufficient to allow us to think more about the question at hand: Can entrepreneurship be taught?
The short preview of my opinion is that I believe certain aspects of running a business can be taught very well; however, the “entrepreneurial mindset” is difficult to teach and correspondingly tough to learn, but for the most part, it is possible. In order to look at this aspect of the mindset a bit further, let’s review my list of the 5 Key Character Traits To Be Successful As An Entrepreneur. Though I acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive list, in my opinion, the five key traits are as follows:
Having been in the entrepreneurship game for more than 30 years now, I have learned that, without a doubt, if you don’t have perseverance, you are highly unlikely to achieve any meaningful level of success as an entrepreneur. Although you may plan and do your best to predict the future, I haven’t met anyone who can do that with 100% accuracy. Therefore, there are going to be unforeseen challenges and you will need to persevere in order to overcome them. The good news is that, like many of the key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, this one can be learned — you don’t need to be born with it.
2. Goal Setting
I’m not sure this is one that I would always have included on this list, but over time, I have learned that the ability to set goals correctly, monitor progress toward those goals, adjust course as necessary, and make sure they are completed regardless of the obstacles you encounter, is critical to the success of most entrepreneurs. The alternative is to not set goals, but where does that leave you? As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. Setting goals and keeping them on your radar on a regular basis can also help to keep you motivated and on track when times are tough.
3. Tolerate Uncertainty
One thing most successful entrepreneurs I know do very well is to tolerate uncertainty. They are comfortable and very often stimulated in situations of uncertainty. Unlike many other traits, this is one that may be difficult (but still possible) to learn — to some extent, you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Those of you who have sought certainty and predictability in your careers and elsewhere in your lives may find it very challenging to be in the relatively chaotic world of entrepreneurship, particularly at the early stage of a venture. In your case, you would be wise to associate yourself with others you know who perhaps have more of a tolerance for those situations, so you can lean on them a bit when the inevitable chaos and uncertainty arrive. You may also want to take a role in the venture that allows you to deal with some of the tasks that are a bit more routine and predictable.
4. A Strong Desire to Succeed
Most of the great entrepreneurs I know have an extremely strong desire to be successful in everything they do. They are usually quite competitive, sometimes to an annoying degree and sometimes regarding tasks that, at least on the surface, don’t seem very important. This drive to succeed is what pushes them to be the pioneer, to take the proverbial arrows, while others are content to sit back and fall into a routine. If you don’t have such a strong desire to succeed, this may be another one that is a bit difficult to learn — but I do think it’s possible.
5. Different Definition of Failure
Hardly any entrepreneurs in the history of time have achieved great success without a failure, usually many, many of them. Sure, a few have done it, but some people have hit the lottery as well. It happens, but it’s highly unusual. Much more common among successful entrepreneurs, are stories of repeated failure — sometimes 10, 20 or more failures — then what appears to be a sudden success that came out of nowhere. The reality is that it did not come out of nowhere; it came from the ability to learn and course-adjust, based on previous approaches that did not work. As with achievement in most disciplines, mindset is everything as an entrepreneur. This is best illustrated by a comment made by Thomas Edison, when someone asked him if he had failed on a particular experiment. His response was to the effect, “no, I just eliminated another way that does not work.”
So, let’s take a look at each of these traits in a bit more depth at it relates to “teachability”. In the case of perseverance, perhaps the most important trait, let’s say it can be learned but cannot be taught. A coach or other third party may be able to help you push your way through difficult situations (i.e. persevere), but the drive to do so must come from inside. Another person can teach you how to set goals correctly. They can also teach you and encourage you to monitor your progress toward those goals and to course-correct along the way. A third part cannot teach you to have a personality or mindset that tolerates uncertainty well, at least not easily. Your risk and uncertainty tolerance is something you’ve developed over a lifetime, so it’s not easy to change. It’s possible, but only with concerted effort and incremental progress, mainly on your part. A coach or mentor can encourage you in this process, but the desire to change will need to come from within. If you are to develop a strong desire to succeed, that too will have to come from within. Again, outside parties can encourage you, however, the desire will have to come from you, and it will likely be based on how important your goals are to you. You need to set goals that really get you “fired up”. You can redefine your definition of failure and this is something that can be taught. It may take some time, but it is vital to your success as an entrepreneur. If you are going to look at every small bump in the road as a failure and allow it to cause you to get off track, rather than learning from it and moving on, entrepreneurship is going to be a very tough road for you.
In summary, in my opinion, many aspects of entrepreneurship, include some parts of the “entrepreneurial mindset” can be taught and learned. For all aspects though, the desire to learn and continue becoming a better and more successful entrepreneur will need to come from within. You will need the drive to succeed that leads to the willpower to overcome obstacles and “make it happen”. If you don’t have, or can’t muster this drive and willpower, no amount of teaching or learning is likely to allow you to become a successful entrepreneur.