We’re living in a golden age of entrepreneurship.
There’s never been a more favorable time for founders, freelancers and members of the side-hustle generation seeking to define success on their own terms.
Look around and you’ll find no shortage of inspirational figures leading the way. They are today’s visionaries, including self-made women who have built history-making brands with genius, guts and grit such as Meg Whitman, Sara Blakely and Arianna Huffington to name a few.
They’re the founders of game-changing companies that have revolutionized our culture, technology and economy — from SpaceX, 23andMe, Zipcar, Uber, Amazon and countless others. The list grows longer every day.
But what of their paths to greatness? Are there traits successful entrepreneurs share?
How Great Entrepreneurs Face Adversity: Dysfunctional Family Theory
We know that it takes more than a great idea to launch a business. But what gives some smart, ambitious trailblazers the edge above others?
Lean Startup pioneer and Stanford professor Steve Blank has a theory that it lies in their psychological makeup. After decades in Silicon Valley watching companies come and go, he observed that great startup CEOs seemed to have similar personality traits, including passion, tenacity and a remarkable comfort operating in chaos.
Blank and his venture capital colleagues noted another peculiar pattern–that a disproportionate number of founders came from dysfunctional families. In his ideas on “dysfunctional family theory” first articulated in 2009, Blank posits that many (not all) entrepreneurs come from a less than white-picket-fence, Brady-Bunch-esque upbringing.
In his “admittedly very unscientific survey”, Blank found that up to one-half of people working doggedly to build their companies self-identified as coming from household environments marked conflict, fighting, harsh discipline, little to no expression of love and substance abuse.
Blank reasons that, of children raised in a dysfunctional family, some emerge from childhood with a keen ability to focus and take action despite discord. They develop skills to cope with uncertainty and learn how to thrive even in the face of instability. Their brains are wired for resilience.
Additional research supports the suggestion that a difficult upbringing begets a successful entrepreneur. The pivotal trait that enables a dysfunctionally-raised child to develop into a ground-breaking entrepreneur is resilience, or adaptation in the face of adversity or trauma.
People who are resilient are able to bounce back from difficult experiences relatively quickly and unharmed. They’re mentally strong, in control of themselves and skilled problem solvers. Children who endure a troubling adolescence but are able to channel that emotional strength into career success could have the most potential for professional powerhouse status.
Any of the above ringing a bell for you? If you think you might fall into the “dysfunctional childhood / professional greatness” camp, you might identify with these qualities or situations.
You’d make a great entrepreneur if…
You balk at strict rules.
Coming from a household where nothing was the same day to day, you might like to bend and shape actions as situations require. This makes you a great out-of-the-box thinker.
You’re able to execute against all odds.
Leaders reared in topsy-turvy home environments are familiar with acts of will. Even if conditions aren’t conducive, you’ve got to get it done anyhow, even if that’s on your own. In a work setting, even when things are in flux you keep your nose to the grindstone and deliver.
You have a strong sense of urgency.
You’re used to feeling like there’s a fire lit under you, which serves you well in the workplace. You don’t have to wait to be told what to do or how to do it. You just plug in and produce.
You operate serenely in chaos.
Deadlines, demands, disarray — none of these have an adverse impact on your output. Actually it’s when your fortitude and composure shine. When those around you are stressed, you’re often the one that’s able to hold it all together and forge forward.
You can read any room.
Being raised in a dysfunctional environment has honed your ability to navigate emotional minefields. In a professional setting, that EQ makes you well-equipped for taking the temperature of investors, board members, new hires and other high-stakes audiences so you can intuitively gauge the best course of action.
Whatever the climate of your youth, it’s encouraging to realize that difficulties in your past can be put to positive use in your career. After all, the only predictable thing about launching a business is its unpredictability. The key is to be self-aware of the challenges and trials that have led you to where you are, and how they inform your disposition and decisions in the work arena.