Try Being a Nerd

Peter Sears

The Provost has used the term entrepreneurialism in a recent article, as if there were some kind of doctrine that governs entrepreneurial behavior. Perhaps there is a core doctrine at work, but given the variety of entrepreneurial activities in the world, it may be difficult to discern what that doctrine is all about.

I would like to offer three quotes that may contribute to the search for a doctrinal truth:

1. “The only common personality trait that I have found in entrepreneurs is that they like to ask a lot of questions.”

2. “At a dinner of Bay Area ‘Cal’ alums, an informal survey of successful entrepreneurs revealed that a large number were projectionists in high school.”

3. “A lawyer doesn’t really know what a case is all about until he is at least six months into it.”

The first quote comes from an MIT professor who has written extensively about entrepreneurial personalities, and has proposed to investors in emerging companies to test for traits that will separate the wheat from the chaff. Why do entrepreneurs ask a lot of questions? It could be that they are naturally inquisitive. The need to be innovative prompts them to explore.

Another possibility is that most entrepreneurial endeavors involve a high degree of risk. One way to deal with risk is perpetual monitoring of one’s environment. Keep a sharp eye out for lions and tigers and bears (oh my!).

One doesn’t normally think of entrepreneurs as cautious people, but it is probable that by keeping informed they are much more aware of their surroundings than those living and working in an established institutional environment, and therefore are much better prepared to deal with risk.

The second quote comes from what these days is referred to as a “serial entrepreneur” – a person who has achieved success after success starting young companies. He suggests that people with a “nerdy” bent can often convert that quality into highly productive enterprises.

It could be that young people who may not have been part of the most popular clique in high school had the time to focus their energies ontechnical subjects. This, in turn, would lead them to making worthwhile discoveries.

The third quote comes from a successful trial lawyer. While some might say that his observation explains how lawsuits often lead to bizarre results, it is also illustrative of the fact that the world is never what it first seems to be.

For example, most sophisticated marketers know that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will not beat a path to your door. You have to know in exquisite detail what motivates a customer to want to make a purchase. This requires a high level of study and concentration.

So, if you want to be a card-carrying entrepreneurialist, try being an inquisitive nerd with a compulsion to study.