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The Authentic Entrepreneur

Is being authentic essential for success as an entrepreneur?

We love people we perceive as authentic, especially exceptional entrepreneurs and innovators, like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. We love being swept up in their passion and amazing visions of previously unimagined possibilities. Similarly, our emotions can also be deeply touched by film and theatrical performances that we find not only believable, but compelling in their story-telling. Think about your favorite Academy Award winners. There is a huge market for these stories because they resonate broadly with human experience.

In entrepreneurship courses at the university level, including those that I have been teaching, the theme is actually “the journey of creating a startup company.” Today, there are thousands of books, videos, and websites full of information, guidance, tips on what to avoid, etc., that offer lessons on what steps need to be taken. In the last couple of years, the Central Government of China has even mandated that every student in university must take such a course! Wow! Does this reflect a major shift in the emphasis of what is critical to learn for survival in the new economy?

While this type of education supports the intention to develop new businesses, what do students actually learn from these courses? The very nature of an academic, credit-bearing course is a defined structure, a sequence of exercises experienced over a specific span of time. Instructors conscientiously analyze and abstract the phases of the work that goes into what I call the “externalities” of building a startup. We use the conventional, well-established language of business and consider a startup as a nascent version poised to become a major player in the global market, like a Fortune 500 corporation. Fame, fortune, and success. Even when not directly presented as such, this is typically acknowledged as an end goal of the entrepreneurial journey. We discuss product development, marketing and financing strategies and set aggressive performance targets as milestones of progress.

How well do these courses train young people to meet life’s unpredictable and unexpected challenges?

I suggest this traditional approach only shows half of the story, maybe just a shadow of what the real journey is. What about the “inner work” that is required? What about the personal growth transformation of the founders, what happens within themselves, their minds and hearts, as they test their assumptions of what life means for them? When I teach “the entrepreneurial mindset”, I position the concept as fundamentally about leadership, learning to take charge of your own life first, then guiding whatever group or organization you are part of. I don’t encourage my students to set their sights on becoming a startup founder. In fact, when I am wearing my academic hat, I feel that it is even irresponsible of me to encourage them in this direction. The commitment to do a startup is an irrational act! All rational analyses of the data point to an extremely high probability of failure. Students need to understand themselves profoundly before making this kind of choice. What kind of mindset is necessary to undertake such high-risk adventures? Seekers who want to participate in “extreme sports”, such as motorcycle racing, jumping out of airplanes? What kind of lasting legacy can you build on that kind of foundation?

What goes on inside the minds and hearts of authentic entrepreneurs? How did they evolve to become who they are? What can be learned from they way they met challenges in their lives? How did they overcome fears they had? What assumptions about themselves did they have to discover and eliminate? What truths did they have to set as guidelines for their growth? How did they stretch beyond their comfort zones? What is authentic risk-taking? How is authenticity related to success?

Beyond an academic case study approach, how can aspiring entrepreneurs learn from these examples?

Authenticity is complex and complicated! Living in a state of authenticity is an evolving process, not a final state of being. We have to acknowledge and accept all of our strengths and weaknesses, the parts of ourselves we love and the parts we wish we didn’t have, the secrets we hide even from ourselves. How does that awareness translate into our behavior, especially in public or professional life?

Being authentic means that we have the courage to make difficult decisions. What kinds of decisions are most difficult? Context matters.

How much does the scale of the problem or the possible solutions contribute to the difficulty of choosing a path forward? How significant is the emotional context of the problem-solver? A professional equities trader on Wall Street may routinely make multi-million dollar bets on upward or downward movements in price of stocks. Compare that person to an entrepreneur preparing to launch a new product with a costly marketing plan. What kinds of pressure do these folks put on themselves?

Our perception of the human dimension of all of our actions and thoughts is a lot more complex and nuanced than we may realize, especially in this age of instant gratification and mass personalization. The context we will always care about most is defined by our own needs and priorities.

Being authentic cannot be a “management strategy”, some kind of tool or skill to be applied when trying to solve problems. Rather, it is an empowering philosophy, a way of being in the world, of interacting with people. Being authentic means being accountable for our actions and the consequences that follow. It can mean the difference between success and failure, however we choose to define those concepts.

Why would anyone want to do the hard work of learning to be authentic? That’s easy to answer. It represents the optimal strategy for realizing and sharing the joy of living in each and every moment, of experiencing all of what being human means. It’s the key to positive social interactions, whether in personal or business life. It’s the secret to attracting acknowledgement and support from others, including financial backing.