The Best Entrepreneurs Have a Lot of Feelings



Why Entrepreneurs Should Strive to Be Sensitive

Entrepreneurs get lauded for a host of great traits—passionate! self-directed! high-achieving!—but the one big negative that’s often thrown their way is insensitivity. Our cultural archetype of the entrepreneur paints him or her as headstrong, bold, and concerned with results over people’s feelings. But in overlooking the entrepreneurial introverts, we may be missing out on their quiet, subtle power.

Perhaps the specter of the insensitive entrepreneur owes its existence to the influence of Silicon Valley, which is stereotyped for its braggy, unapologetic “bro culture.” However, many entrepreneurs actually have much more in common with artists than with this bro-y stereotype in their approach to problem-solving and inspiration—and much to gain from cultivating sensitivity. But in a culture where the flipside of big ideas seems to be “disruptive” brashness, we don’t really talk about, well, feelings.

Are entrepreneurs actually “disruptive”?

Many entrepreneurs don’t necessarily see themselves as disruptive mavericks, even though the image is particularly buzzy right now. A large body of psychological research has attempted to map the personality type of the entrepreneur, and one seemingly common denominator that has emerged is that entrepreneurs are prone to risk-taking. However, when surveyed, entrepreneurs have revealed that they don’t perceive themselves as more prone to risk-taking than non-entrepreneurs, according to cognitive theorists Leslie Palich and D. Ragby. The cognitive theorists argue, in keeping with previous research into the psychology of choice, that how entrepreneurs cognitively frame choices may contextualize risks in a way that alters the perception of risk itself, like when risks are considered against potential benefits.

The stereotypes of entrepreneurs as aggressive, disruptive risk-takers (adjectives often coded as masculine) can even quell entrepreneurism itself. In business research, women exposed to this stereotype were less likely to report having entrepreneurial intentions. And in small businesses—which make up a large, vital share of entrepreneurial activity—success often hinges on adapting and building relationships, meaning that there’s not much room for aggressive insensitivity.

The secret power of sensitivity

“Sensitivity” is often lumped into traits perceived as negative, like weakness or spinelessness—but it hasn’t always been seen that way, and a quick look into our own (sensitive) past may illuminate the positive nature of this trait. In Ancient Greece, the ability to feel pleasure and pain was not thought of as neurological, nor as a sensory experience, but as primarily emotional in nature. Aristotle and his contemporaries portrayed sensitivity to pain as one of the “passions of the soul,” originating in the heart, not the brain. In the Middle Ages, experiences of pain took on multitude of social and cultural meanings—being highly sensitive could be a sign of holiness, or a punishment from God, or even evidence of witchcraft. Modern cross-cultural studies show that sensitive people’s experiences are not uniform across social contexts. For example, in a survey of Canadian and Chinese children, sensitive Canadian children often suffered from a lack of social acceptance, while sensitive Chinese children were more popular with peers.

Only recently have psychological and cognitive science begun seriously investigating the brain and sensitivity. Researchers describe a trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), estimated to affect 15-20% of the population and observed in many species throughout the animal kingdom. People with SPS—those psychologist Elaine Aron calls “Highly Sensitive People”—show greater responsiveness and sensitivity to social and environmental stimuli. Although they can be easily overwhelmed by their heightened awareness, sensitive people bring unique strengths to entrepreneurship, like empathy and an ability to predict others’ needs.

Although there may be a genetic basis to SPS, there is evidence that sensitivity can also be cultivated and that individuals can develop areas of the brain related to sensory processing and attention through mindfulness training and meditation practices. Meditation has been shown to enhance perceptual sensitivity, and even short-term meditation can induce noticeable physical changes. Many famous creatives, from David Lynch to Sir Paul McCartney, rely on the enhanced state of mind and body brought on by meditation. And these benefits are no secret in the entrepreneurial community either, as powerful businesspeople like Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of salesforce.com, and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, are already speaking publicly about the benefits of mindfulness.

Perhaps due to the limits of the entrepreneurial stereotype, research into links between sensitivity and entrepreneurship is still young, but there are intuitive parallels we can draw, if we examine the connection between sensitivity and entrepreneurship from the angle of, ironically, intuition itself. Harnessing sensitivity into action often relies on intuitive insights, and this is the area where successful entrepreneurs truly shine. A great entrepreneur possesses an ability to spot pain points—which highly sensitive people often see and even experience more clearly—and make connections between them and possible solutions. Not shockingly, then, successful entrepreneurs often report relying on intuitive thinking, especially in the early stages of founding a business.

The sensitive entrepreneur as artist

Only a minority of people ever make the leap into entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurial impulse, then, could well be considered a kind of artistic mystery, a question of inspiration. Like artists, many successful entrepreneurs draw ideas from their own sensitivity, a heightened awareness to life’s pleasures, pains, and experiences. Monet painted his water lilies out of a deep sensitivity to the visual experience, the dances of light and shadow, while Richard Branson of Virgin Group turned his perceptions of 1960s London’s swirling youth culture into a mail-order record label that became a top record company worldwide. Branson then famously founded Virgin Airlines after a flight to meet a beautiful date was cancelled—he turned an obstructed romance and the disappointment of his fellow passengers into ingenuity, chartering his own plane and paying for it by selling the other seats onboard in what would be the company’s first unofficial flight.

American Pragmatist John Dewey saw artistic experience as the harmonious synthesis of thought, action, and meaning, and considered creative problem-solving to be as deep an aesthetic experience as making art itself. “We only think when confronted with a problem,” he famously wrote—and this idea that the mind comes alive in problem-solving mode can be applied to artists and entrepreneurs alike. Just like artists, entrepreneurs lean heavily on aesthetics and synthesize thought, action, and meaning to create some of their best work. Steve Jobs, for example, wasn’t referring to any roadmap when he designed the easy, one-button mouse of the first Macs or relentlessly pursued simplicity in the original iPod—he was tapping into a deep understanding of how thoughts and actions synthesize to create interfaces that flow naturally from users’ input.

In short, the stuff of entrepreneurship—generating bold new ideas, perceiving consumer needs and novel opportunities, and functioning out of a state of heightened intuition—is in no way limited to those “aggressive disruptors” of our imagination. The real work of the entrepreneur is much like that of the artist—deeply connected to everyday life, inspired by a depth of understanding and a heightened receptiveness to experience. Sensitivity, in fact, may be something for today’s entrepreneurs to actively strive for, rather than something to dismiss as weak or un-hip. By cultivating a sensitive mind, entrepreneurs can turn nuanced thoughtfulness into creative, meaningful solutions.

About the author: Eliot Gattegno ‏

Eliot Gattegno is an Associate Professor of Practice of Business and Arts, NYU Shanghai.

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