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August 29, 2009

Should Entrepreneurs Be More Like Teenage Girls?

Even though I graduated from college (gasp) 18 years ago, I still think about the school season as my annual planning cycle rather than the calendar year.  Having three school age kids reinforces this life rhythm.

And so as I was thinking through my personal goals for this coming year, and discussing individual goals with each of my kids (a recently adopted ritual I highly recommend for any parent), this article from The Economist caught my eye.  The article's subtitle, tells it all:  "Depression may be linked to how willing someone is to give up his [or her] goals."  The article describes research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Carsten Wrosch and Gregory Miller, where teenage girls who had strong "goal adjustment capacities" - the ability to disengage from unattainable goals and reset their attention onto new goals - avoid feeling down and depressed.  In contrast, girls who get stuck on their goals and can't reset are more susceptible to depression.  The implication is that if you aren't facile at adjusting your goals, and they're overly ambitious goals, it can lead to depression.

Applying this research to entrepreneurs is an interesting thought experiment.  As investors, we VCs are always attracted to entrepreneurs who set big, hairy audacious goals (BHAGs).  Who wants to invest in an entrepreneur whose pitch is, "I'm going to make a nice living in a small niche," as opposed to, "I aspire to achieve world domination"?  Yet are those entrepreneurs more susceptible to depression and defeatism when they're unable to achieve those outrageous BHAGs?

To reconcile these two views I am reminded of an excellent book I recently read by renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, called Mindset.  Dweck's research shows that successful people in business, sports and life have "growth mindsets" rather than "fixed mindsets".  The "growth mindset" is one in which a person believes that one's world view is less about ability and more about lifelong learning.  "Growth mindset" individuals feel they can always learn from experiences (failures and successes) and develop resilience because they're focused on personal growth rather than achievement tied to rigid objectives.  When a "growth mindset" individual faces adversity, they focus on the learnings and the self-improvement opportunities that come from adversity.

I have seen in my own work that the best entrepreneurs do set BHAGs, sometimes outrageous and unattainable ones (create a $100 million company in 5 years from scratch?  Is that really possible?), and push themselves to achieve excellence.  But the ones that really distinguish themselves are the ones who embrace the "growth mindset".  They embrace life long learning, no matter how great their achievements, and allow themselves to occasionally hit the reset button and adjust their goals without breaking stride when reality intrudes (such as, say, the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression) are the ones that can blend the best of both worlds.

What kind of mindset have you seen work best?

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Complete agree Jeff, I think the other element is a "can do" attitude. I love people who no matter the project look at it as doable....the sit down, figure it out and get it done. Critical skill set in my opinion!

Yes. I remember one of my first bosses telling me: don't come to me with problems, come to me with recommended solutions!

I worked for Meg Whitman in a bunch of companies and we had plenty of setbacks. When we screwed up or something went awry she always said, "OK what did we learn?" It was said with no finger pointing and included total acceptance of both reality and responsibility. I never saw her get depressed for a minute.

And, as you probably know, Meg is profiled in "Mindset" by Carole Dweck.

A related point:
My belated view of the world is that planning and analysis can only take you so far. The variables we don't perceive can overwhelm those that we do. It is at least as important to be alert to changes and be prepared to change course.

Life long learning is definitely a key factor for success in any field. Thoughts on its application to entrepreneurship are at http://bit.ly/Cgmc6.

May be a good book there on applying business techniques to child raising. Goal setting with your kids is a very good idea.

Thanks, Robert. Goal setting with kids let's them know that the process is as important as the content.

One of the things we find is that new and ambitious business leaders are great at setting up goals but often they lack the skills to execute those BHAG's once they start leading a company and those goals (vision) need to be transferred to others.

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Great post. As an entrepreneur early in his career, and someone who studies people very closely, you mentioned several concepts that have resonated with me.

First, it's good to hear acknowledgment of entrepreneurs that set BHAGs. I'd challenge anyone to find someone that sets more ambitious goals than I do. While I can now recognize them as BHAGs, I think it's important to have an intense vision and unbounded ambition for a project that you choose to take up.

But what happens when this leads to frustration? This is something I've thought about quite a bit. I wrote about a simple framework for understanding goal achievement "The Equation of Performance" ( http://kevinvogelsang.com/?p=54 ).

My current conclusion is that achieving BHAGs (or making the decision to reset goals) comes down to self-awareness. However, you can only gain self-awareness by fully engaging BHAGs and learning from the experience.

The goal for anyone setting a goal should be balancing challenge/importance with our own personal skills. Check out the "Concept of Flow" ( http://kevinvogelsang.com/?p=58 )

As this study you mentioned shows, if you take up something you can't handle, you'll be overwhelmed. And if you're overwhelmed, you'll feel the effects of low performance and unhappiness. This is terrible for any ambitious individual.

However, people should be careful not to box themselves in. Skill sets and ability change over time. This is why the "growth mindset" is key.

Of course once you understand yourself and what a BHAG will take, it comes down to being relentless. Yes, it'll be difficult to get there, but achievement only comes one step at a time. This has been my recent expansion of understanding: "To Be Relentless" ( http://kevinvogelsang.com/?p=156 )

I'm sure you have no shortage of content to read, but these issues are important to me, and the thoughts that you bring up need to be more widely understood, particularly for ambitious people.

The difficult thing about being ambitious is that it is a minority of people that truly are ambitious. It takes time to understand that. It takes ever more time to position one self to achieve an ambitious goal. Then comes the need for understanding the brutal facts of driving progress toward the goal.

These are all pitfalls of ambitious people that are not easy to overcome when isolated from other ambitious people. Ambition and vision are gifts that should be unlocked, not left only for the land of dreams.

Thanks for your detailed comments and links, Kevin. Achieving goals is addictive. Once you get on a roll, you want to keep it going!

Relatedly, when we forge a start-up team in which we each get to use our strengths we are likely to be high performing and happy - with the work, ourselves and each other... per M. Buckingham & Donald Clifton's research (Now Discover Your Strengths)
People who are mildly on the pessimistic side are often more realistic (better decisionmakers) than those who are at the extreme end of optimistic - per Marty Seligman (Learned Optimism
those 25 and under grew up studying and playing in teams - thus, some research shows, more adept at collaborating with people unlike them - a vital trait in this Connected Age - and very helpful for start-ups I've noticed first hand both when covering them as a Wall Street Journal reporter and, for the past three years, coaching them.
~ another fan of Seeing Both Sides

Thanks, Kare. I like to encourage start teams to take the Myers Briggs test for that reason!

I prefer Strengths testing bussgang yet know that MB is very respected - thanks

I love to see this combination in any leader, entrepreneurial or otherwise:
* Setting BHAG's
* Ability to inspire a team to help you achieve the BHAG - particularly a fan of the Strenghs approach Kare mentions, but also see the value in MB and the like
* Ability to inspire beyond the core team - turning the BHAG into a movement and bringing investors, customers, employees, influencers in
* Ability to reset those BHAG's during a dislocation - and then bringing everyone else along, especially linking the new vision to the old

It's a combination of a "growth mindset" and a leadership style that can set an entrepreneur apart from the pack. But it's oh so rare/hard to find, isn't it?

Hi Jeff. Glad to know you and now be reading your blog. It's very interesting to reflect on the threshold skills required to be an entrepreneur.

I have always thought that being a great entrepreneur requires two seemingly opposing skills: 1st - you have to have extremely high tolerance for risk....this may be in the form of either optimism or just less personal affect and 2nd - you need to be a very careful risk manager....constantly on the lookout for changes in environment that require tweaks or changes to your plan.

Pretty difficult to have both, right? This is where self-awareness becomes so important. My risk tolerance stems from my insatiable optimism. Like Kare suggested, this necessarily means I sometimes miss pitfalls. Bad news right? Good news is I know it and I work very hard to surround myself and listen to the pessimists identifying all the things that can go wrong. Of course, I have to figure out which risks are real and which ones are speed bumps. But at the end of the day, the self-aware entrepreneur is the one that understands the risks they personally bring to the business and will consciously build the team to reduce or remove them.

Great Info! Thanks for the post!

Thanks for sharing about it.

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