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Almost Anyone Can Learn to be an Entrepreneur

by Katie Moritz
April 6, 2017 | Work

In his years of studying successful entrepreneurs, Ronald Mitchell found they all had something in common. It wasn't a personality type or any other thing they'd been born with. No—it was a thought process that came only through many hours of deliberate practice.

Mitchell is a professor of entrepreneurship at Texas Tech University and an editor of the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange. Through his research, he's learned that entrepreneurs aren't born, they're made.

Pop psychology author Malcom Gladwell wrote about the "10,000-Hour Rule" in his 2008 book "Outliers: The Story of Success." It's his research-based theory that you can become an expert at anything if you practice it deliberately for 10,000 hours.

entrepreneur pbs rewire

"If 10,000 hours gives you expertise, why not for entrepreneurs?" Mitchell said to Rewire.

Based on research on entrepreneurial behavior, Mitchell developed a series of questions that could accurately predict whether the person taking the questionnaire had entrepreneurial expertise. The questions got at the way entrepreneurs think through different situations.

The consistent way entrepreneurs responded to the questionnaire—across 20 countries all over the world—suggests these thought processes, developed through thousands of hours of experience, are what tie entrepreneurs together, not a certain personality type, he said.

It "wasn't personality bound—I found entrepreneurs who were introverts and extroverts, people who were non-assertive and et cetera" answering the same way on the questionnaires, Mitchell said. The idea that "you're just a born entrepreneur or you're this or you're that,... neither my experience nor my research matched with that. ...

With a high degree of accuracy, these (questions) separate the experts from the novices."

Test yourself

Here are a couple of Mitchell's questions. Can you guess which answers would indicate entrepreneurship expertise?

1) Would you say you are more: a) action oriented; or b) accuracy oriented?

2) Do you want things: a) open to the possibilities; or b) settled and decided?

If you picked "a" for both, you were right. If you didn't pick "a" and want to start a business someday, don't worry. "You can acquire the knowledge and you can learn the problem solving process" of successful entrepreneurs, Mitchell said.

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Evidence of this? "Virtually every kid can have a lemonade stand and it works in every community in America all the time," he said. "Why's that? Because they're born entrepreneurs? No. (It's) because they get the knowledge base and problem solving" while they're running the stand.

If you asked seventh-graders, for example, to answer Mitchell's questions, they'd answer differently before running a lemonade stand than they would after, he said. It's because some entrepreneurial skills have to be learned by doing.

An exception to the rule

There is one thing that impacts entrepreneurial success that could be born in some people, Mitchell said.

"What's born? What's really born (is) are you willing to practice," he said. "Some things are born, like height for basketball, or willingness to persevere when you're an entrepreneur. ...  There are certain folks who are lazy who won't persist, won't do the work, because it's hard work, and those folks are unlikely to be long-term entrepreneurs."

To Mitchell, these findings are "just so positive and encouraging." He said they indicate that almost anyone can be an entrepreneur, regardless of the "genetic roulette wheel."

"Pretty much everybody in America who's willing to work hard—if you get the real knowledge and problem-solving stuff that's based on advice from real entrepreneurs and experience for yourself—the chance you wouldn't be a successful entrepreneur would be way lower than everybody thinks," he said.

This article is part of America’s Entrepreneurs, a Rewire initiative made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2019. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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