Entrepreneurship is not something we inherit or solely a matter of genetics. As a first-generation founder, I believe that it is profoundly influenced by the ideas and values we adopt. When we closely examine how entrepreneurs are raised and what drives them, we begin to notice intriguing similarities that spark questions about where their entrepreneurial spirit really comes from.
Is it an inherent trait they are born with, or is it something they learn and develop over time? In my view, entrepreneurship is not solely a genetic predisposition that’s passed down through families. The fact that we’re seeing so many first-gen entrepreneurs in families that have been employees for decades suggests something else. The entrepreneurial spirit is a result of the ideas, narratives, and values we learn from those around us and the environments in which we grow. And that’s why we’re seeing an explosion of entrepreneurship around us right now: “Around us” means so much more today than just a few generations ago.
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Influence of Family Stories: The Power of Memetic Transfer
In the past, most people were severely limited by the narratives repeated by their small social circles. People didn’t get around much, so whoever you were surrounded by was often your only source of stories about what a good life looks like. And often, the opposite, too. Horror stories, warnings, and social taboos were equally passed down through “the stories we tell each other.”
Renowned biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of “memes” as thoughts and ideas transmitted from one generation to another. Memes, similar to the way genes evolve, play a crucial role in shaping our perspectives and behaviors. In the context of entrepreneurship, the transmission of entrepreneurial thinking within families dramatically influences the development of an entrepreneurial mindset. If you see your parents charge into starting new businesses every few years, you learn that that’s a good way to live. If you’re raised to experiment with ideas and see where they go, you’re exposed to being a founder before you even know it.
But the same process can be used against you. Being imbued with limiting beliefs and exposed to negative conceptions of entrepreneurship can suppress entrepreneurial thought and action from a very early age.
Our social circle sometimes shares horror scenarios discouraging us from taking risks and venturing into the entrepreneurial realm.
I experienced that, too.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was a kid. They had retired from a life of working for the government. Their life-long “path of safety” was working for the biggest employer possible. For them, getting me through school, to university, and then into a well-paid job was their highest priority. Any deviation from that path was met with strong criticism.
In what I can only call a bizarrely ironic twist, my grandparents started an entrepreneurial venture after they retired: they started importing and selling fine glassware. I was often tasked to help my grandpa label and sort the inventory, where I made some of my first money as a kid. But this venture wasn’t “a real job” for them. A real job was at a desk, not in a garage, stacking inventory for a seemingly lucrative business. A lifetime of employment blurred out running your own business as a career all by itself.
Challenging these suppressing narratives is crucial for empowering aspiring entrepreneurs. Paul Millerd, for instance, presents arguments against the “go to school, get a job, have a career” mindset of the baby boomer generation. He calls out the last 70 years as an anomaly of uninterrupted economic growth. You didn’t have a cushy safe path for most of humanity’s time on this planet. You needed to adapt. To be ready to pivot if nature throws an obstacle your way. There was no “default path.”I recognize this very strongly now that I have moved from Berlin to small-town Canada. I am surrounded by farmers here. The resourcefulness and independence fostered among farmers, who have long been required to adapt, plan for the long term, and understand the value of investments, is palpable in how people here structure their lives. Kids growing up here are encouraged to experiment with small entrepreneurial ventures. From mowing people’s lawns to operating seasonal Ice Cream Trucks, I’ve seen it all, and that’s just in my family.
If you have entrepreneurial peers, you’ll see entrepreneurship at work. And that normalizes the activity.
It also normalizes failure. The phrase “I told you so” often echoes from non-entrepreneurial peers at the slightest sign of messing up, serving as a pushback to the default path rather than encouraging perseverance and resilience.
Delayed Gratification and Socioeconomic Influence
There’s a socioeconomic angle to this, as well.
Delayed gratification, a concept explored in the Marshmallow Experiment, offers insights into the development of entrepreneurial traits. The experiment revealed that children exposed to stable circumstances tend to have an easier time delaying gratification. This connection suggests that socioeconomic status plays a significant role in developing core traits associated with entrepreneurship, such as financial wisdom, sticking with a long-term vision, and stability of expectations. It further supports the notion that entrepreneurship is not solely a product of genetics but is heavily impacted by the influence of parents and peers (and the stability of their lives).
Empowering Aptitudes and Overcoming Suppressive Narratives
But it’s not all nurture. Nature plays a role, too. Certainly, specific character traits make it much easier to develop an interest in entrepreneurship. Qualities such as genuine curiosity, a compulsion to tinker with ideas and concepts, and a strong sense of rebellion against the status quo can pave the way for entrepreneurial pursuits. Recognizing and empowering these aptitudes within individuals can fuel their entrepreneurial aspirations. And that’s where we get back to nurture.
The absence of suppressive narratives and the presence of nurturing empowering stories is crucial for fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. Families, schools, and society at large play a significant role in either hindering or promoting these narratives.
I was lucky that even though I was strongly advised to follow academic pursuits, my curiosity for things outside that realm was never actively suppressed. My family looked at my interest in gaming and “computer stuff” with some suspicion, but they knew that I found something there that gave me great joy.
I’m glad they understood that.
Well, I am glad they tried to understand that. They didn’t really get it.
But I found people who did. I found my fellow nerds — on the internet.
The Influence of the Digital Age: Expanding Narrative Horizons
In today’s interconnected world, the power of the digital realm enables us to access stories beyond our immediate surroundings. Gone are the days when our friends were exclusively determined by which school we went to. Or what city we live in.
We now can explore the lives and narratives of those who have successfully achieved what we aspire to — in the entrepreneurial realm or anywhere else. No longer confined to the traditional narratives imposed by family, school, or societal systems, we can choose to learn from those who have navigated the journeys we strive to be on and find inspiration to pursue financial stability and a more impactful life. The influence of these diverse stories, facilitated by the digital world we dive into when we look at our screens, carries more weight than genetic predispositions alone.
I believe I flourished massively when I found the IRC network in 2001. Suddenly, I had instant connectivity with people who, like me, loved to code, watch anime, and read a lot of Science Fiction. I had no “real world” friends who shared this with me. But on the internet relay chat network, I found hundreds of them. They allowed me to be myself.
And, quite unsurprisingly, many of those new-found friends also were quite industrious. They showed me that the narratives in my family weren’t the only ones out there.
Embracing Entrepreneurship: Nurturing and Change for Transformation
At its core, entrepreneurship requires a willingness to take risks, experiment, and drive change. Some of that can be learned. But some of that needs to be in you already, at least as a potential. While some individuals possess a natural inclination for novelty and risk-taking, there’s something much more important: accepting one’s ability to initiate change. You can learn to be an entrepreneur.
In the global village of the internet and the digital economy, entrepreneurship transcends genetic boundaries. Nurturing entrepreneurial traits through exposure to diverse stories, communities, and experiences empowers individuals to embrace taking their own future into their own hands more confidently. Entrepreneurship emerges as a product of nurture, driven by the influence of ideas, narratives, and values in the pursuit of transformative impact.
So find the others — and listen to their stories.