The signs of an entrepreneurial future are often evident in childhood
By Dr. Rainer Zitelmann
Many young people today strive for a secure job. But we urgently need more young people with the courage to follow their entrepreneurial calling. But is it possible to recognize future entrepreneurs when they are children and young adults?
In order to better understand entrepreneurship development, the Psychologist Eva Schmitt-Rodermund analyzed long-term data in a secondary investigation of the Terman Longitudinal Study. Her analysis was based on the Terman Study, which monitored 1,600 individuals in and around Berkeley, California, over a period of 60 years. The boys and girls, selected as children, all had IQs of 130 or more and were born in the years around 1910. The first survey took place in 1922, the final survey in 1982. On the basis of interviews carried out with the young male participants, in combination with impressions provided by their parents, the author compared the boys who exhibited an entrepreneurial personality profile with the rest of their peers.
“The boys classified as demonstrating entrepreneurial traits were those who scored highly for conscientiousness and hard work, extraversion and openness to experience, while scoring low for agreeableness and mental instability.” This profile corresponds with the personality profiles of entrepreneurs. The findings: “The more a boy identifies with entrepreneurial personality traits, the greater the likelihood that he will engage in entrepreneurial activities in adulthood, or join the executive or supervisory boards of commercial enterprises.”
The boys who were described by their parents as possessing the traits associated with entrepreneurial personalities were later twice as likely to become entrepreneurs or CEOs as those with different personality profiles. In a cross-sectional study of adult entrepreneurs who were asked to retrospectively report on their childhoods and teenage years, the same correlations were reported.
Furthermore, the study showed that individuals who went on to become entrepreneurs were more likely to have taken on leadership roles during their adolescence (student body president, official positions within sports clubs, boy scouts, etc.) and were more likely to have invented something (such as new recipes or even their own assemblies and devices) than other children and adolescents. In addition, the study revealed that individuals who proceeded along an entrepreneurial path in later life were more likely to have read books on economic subjects during their earlier years, and more frequently expressed a desire to engage in independent entrepreneurship when asked about their future career plans.
My study The Wealth Elite was based on in-depth interviews with 45 extremely wealthy Germans (mostly self-made entrepreneurs) and found that although a majority of the study’s participants had benefited from high-quality school and university educations, in this respect they were no different from many of their peers. What’s more, their performance throughout their formal education tended to be average. There was no correlation between how well they did at school or university and the level of wealth they ultimately achieved. In fact, those with the best school or university grades did not go on to join the highest ranks of the wealthy.
With very few exceptions, all of the interviewees pursued either competitive sports or earned money in an atypical, entrepreneurial manner. More than half of the interviewees were involved in competitive sports while they were at school. In many cases, sports were actually far more important to them than school. As athletes they learned how to handle victories and defeats and how to beat their opponents; they learned to tolerate frustration and developed self-confidence in their own abilities. Some played team sports and developed valuable teamwork skills, but a vast majority of the interviewees were not involved in team sports; they were individual competitors: track and field athletes, skiers, equestrians, swimmers, tennis players and judoka. They delivered impressive athletic performances, won district and state titles and even competed in national championships. Nevertheless, they all acknowledged at some point that they lacked the genes that would enable them to compete at the very highest levels.
I also examined how the 45 interviewees earned money alongside school and university. Typical jobs for teenagers and students, i.e. the kind that pay an hourly wage, were the clear exception. A look at the interviewees’ unbridled ideas and initiatives reveals a tremendous amount of creativity. They sold everything, from cosmetic products to home winter gardens, from second-choice wheel rims to automated car washes, from used cars and motorbikes to insurance products and closed-end funds, from animals they had bred themselves to jewelry, from handmade radios to second-hand car radios.
There can be no doubt that these experiences shaped the young people who would later become entrepreneurs. They learned to organize, to sell, to think like entrepreneurs. Their early entrepreneurial experiences were the ideal preparation for setting up their own businesses later in life.
Dr. Rainer Zitelmann is author of the book The Power of Capitalism.