My dad was a self-employed salesman through much of his career—and I’ve now flown solo for two-thirds of mine—so the idea that working for yourself could somehow be coded into your DNA has always piqued my interest. So…is entrepreneurship genetic, environmental, or a little of both?
As it turns out, there’s science that supports the concept that personality traits such as independence, leadership, risk tolerance, and the ability to recognize opportunity are all affected by your genes.
The most notable study to date analyzing the relationship between heredity and entrepreneurship was performed by Tim Spector and Lynn Cherkas of the the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College (London) and Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University and author of Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life. You can read additional details on the conclusions here—“How Entrepreneurship Might Be Genetic”—but the top-line finding was that 37 to 48 percent of the tendency to be an entrepreneur is genetic. An important part of that, as you might guess, is the genetic influence on the type of personality you develop.
Of course, no one would argue that you can’t work for yourself if it doesn’t run in the family, or that two entrepreneurial parents plus four self-employed grandparents would magically equal a solopreneur superstar. If you don’t have the desire or drive, your genes ain’t gonna be enough to succeed.
Is Entrepreneurship Genetic? Sure, But It’s Not All that Matters
Heaven knows I inherited plenty of my dad’s other traits, good and bad, though I didn’t get his golf swing and never managed to beat him. Genes aside, I think the more important aspect was observing him in action. Some examples :
- Living below your means. I’m pretty sure my dad was the only person in history to click 300,000 miles on the odometer of a Ford Escort. (He replaced the engine somewhere in the high 100s, and when the driver’s side seat wore out, he swapped it with the passenger seat.) As frugal as I am, he was a cut above—but the principle still applies. Being prudent about spending and saving (including having a go-to-hell fund) enables me to make smarter decisions, without having to worry about when the next job or check comes in.
- Clients buy from people they like. We all have pride in our creative talents, but it’s the client experience that people have with you during the process that makes the difference. When I was a young teen, I occasionally tagged along with my dad on sales calls. As gruff as he could be at times, man, could he turn on the charm when he had a prospect in front of him. Even his answering machine message was exuberant.
- Patience. Dad wasn’t famous for being patient, but he had it when he needed it. Many of his customers were hospitals up and down the East Coast; most of them took 180 days to pay, and some were closer to 270. The key is, he knew they were good for it, even if they were slow. No amount of complaining would make the accounting gears turn faster, so he simply planned his finances—including carrying inventory costs—knowing it was going to take a while. This is why I don’t get too upset if a client is slow-paying but reliable.
- If you’re going to work for yourself, enjoy the perks. Here, Dad excelled. He’d often be on road trips for days at a time, and then would take random weekdays off to play golf or do DIY stuff around the house. I never saw an inkling of guilt. He worked hard enough to make it work, no harder.
My dad died unexpectedly a couple of weeks before Father’s Day 2000. (Sadly, five months shy of his 60th trip around the sun.) I’d only been running my own business for a few months by then, but I could tell he knew I would make it. I still miss him terribly, but his genes and the lessons he taught me are with me every day. Happy Father’s Day, everyone!
In the comments: Is entrepreneurship genetic in a significant respect, or do you believe environment is more important? Also: What’s the most important business lesson you learned from your dad?