The Entrepreneur’s Magical Ferrari Brain….with Bicycle Brakes

With credit and gratitude to Dr. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and former professor at Harvard Medical School, shares his brain diagnostic to help entrepreneurs lap the competition

In my 30 years of working with business owners around the world, both as a consultant and as a psychiatrist, I have developed a keen appreciation for how the magical mind of the entrepreneur operates. I have learned that what separates successful from frustrated small-business owners is their ability—or inability—to capitalize on their massive psychological strengths and to minimize the carnage that can be wreaked by their weaknesses.

The difference between success and frustration lives in the mind, but it is not IQ or innate talent. It is the ability to make the most of what you’ve got. The great business owner learns how to harness and direct his or her mental power, while the frustrated one spends life trying to learn how.

Entrepreneurs constitute the guts and gusto of our economy. They’re the people who keep us bouncing back no matter how bad things get and the people who break new ground no matter how many times they’re told they can’t go there. They are the business equivalent of farmers—not sitting in boardrooms or looking for bailouts but always out at the crack of dawn plowing the economy, dealing with whatever the weather brings, growing their crops no matter what.

The Psychological Profile of an Entrepreneur

If there is one psychological characteristic that defines entrepreneurs, it is what I call pop: grit combined with imagination and optimism. People who start their own businesses have a ton of pop. They never give up; they keep inventing new solutions, and they believe in the pot of gold.

But a rich, complex and often contradictory set of tendencies combine to define these ragtag rebels and swashbuckling pioneers. I say contradictory because for every positive trait the entrepreneur possesses, he or she usually has a corresponding vulnerability. Paradoxes prevail in their psychological makeup.

In order for entrepreneurs to thrive and achieve their magnificent dreams, they need to learn to overrule their destructive tendencies while taking advantage of their considerable constructive gifts. But learning how to do this requires insight—knowledge of one’s assets and vulnerabilities—and planning, developing a method to take advantage of strengths and overrule weaknesses.

A big problem is that most entrepreneurs hate to introspect, and they hate even more to plan. They prefer to operate spontaneously according to the Nike solution: Just do it. The Nike solution can work spectacularly well sometimes and has led to the making of many sudden fortunes. But over time it tends to fail and has led to the demise of many such sudden successes.

To help entrepreneurs gain control over their powerful minds, I offer the following compilation of what I’ve learned are the central traits and tendencies of the small-business owner. I couple each asset with a corresponding vulnerability, as it seems these qualities come in Jekyll-and-Hyde pairs. As you read down the list, put a star next to the assets or vulnerabilities that particularly characterize you.

How to Master Your Mind

As an entrepreneur, you are very lucky. You are blessed with an extraordinarily powerful mind. You have the equivalent of a Ferrari engine for a brain. That’s why you are a winner in the making, a potential champion. But you must address one major problem that almost every entrepreneur has: You have bicycle brakes. You have difficulty controlling the power of your brain. Sometimes it runs away with you, so you may crash into walls or fail to slow down or stop when you should. This can cost you the race.

If you look down the list of qualities you starred in the inventory, you will see that the assets relate to areas where you regularly exhibit power over yourself and your circumstances. But all the vulnerabilities relate to your inability to control, discipline or inhibit certain tendencies.

For example, the visionary will continue to come up with new ideas, but the ideas will not become useful unless the entrepreneur learns the discipline of taking current reality into account—or listening to and believing others who can. The tenacious deal-maker will stubbornly walk away from a perfectly acceptable compromise out of an inability to stop chasing a win. The jokester will warm up the business meeting with humor and land the sale unless his uninhibited side mortifies the client with an offensive joke. The serial entrepreneur will pounce on the lucrative opportunity and skillfully avoid the sucker’s bet unless her headstrong side goes all in on every  hand.

When entrepreneurs learn systems that help them slow down, pause, ask for help, take advice, make a plan, get organized, submit to a certain discipline or think a project through, then their creativity, intuition, enthusiasm and turbocharged brain will generate victory upon victory.

But when they do not, I have seen time and again, they crash. Brilliant ideas sit hidden as scrap in the junk heap of failed projects. A year of hundred-hour workweeks gets destroyed in one hotheaded, impetuous conversation. A sudden insight that solves an industry-wide problem gets scooped up by a competitor due to enthusiastic loose lips, lack of boundaries or inadequate legal counsel. A killer business plan gets dismissed because the entrepreneur failed to show up at the right place at the right time.

Here are some action steps that can help you run your best race:

1. Read the list of assets and vulnerabilities and star those that apply to you.

2. Meet with a partner, friend, colleague or hired consultant, and brainstorm ways to add structures to your life to increase the power of your brakes. Lists, schedules, detailed plans, priorities—these matter! Don’t blow this task off as being too pedestrian or boring. Your success depends on it.

3. If this proves insufficient, consider working with a consultant over a protracted period of time. The skills that you need can be learned, but many of them go against your grain, which is why it is difficult to coach yourself successfully.

4. Try to make sure you are spending the majority of your time at the intersection of three spheres: what you love to do, what you have a special skill at doing and what advances the project, or what someone will pay you to do. Delegate the rest if you possibly can.

As you follow these steps, you will gain a greater feeling of control. Structure creates an atmosphere not of frustration but of positive emotion. This, coupled with the entrepreneur’s innate drive, leads to focus—the magic wand of peak performance.


Corresponding Vulnerability

Visionary, Dreamer, Pioneer Trouble perceiving or acknowledging reality
Has an “itch,” a constant desire for “more” that drives ongoing achievement and creative undertakings The itch can also lead to an array of self-destructive activities and habits
Independent Difficulty with working on teams, within hierarchy or matrix
Doesn’t care what others think Poor self-observer
Tenacious, competitive Stubborn
Original, thinks outside box Trouble thinking inside box, following standard procedures
Loves risk Takes foolish chances
Never gives up Tries same failed method over and over, sticks with bad project too long
Generous Gives away the store
Sensitive (but covers it over) Easily hurt (but covers it over)
Forgiving Lets bad people back in
Trusting Not discerning enough
Loves start-up phase and closing Trouble with follow-through and middle phase
Can quickly cut to the chase Impatient, brings premature closure
Full of ideas Trouble sticking with one idea long enough to develop it fully
Innovator, cowboy Rides so many buckin’ broncos gets lots of bruises and broken bones
Resilient, gritty, can’t be defeated, only slowed down Sometimes doesn’t quit or slow down when indicated
Loves role of underdog, thrives when odds seem insurmountable against him/her Sometimes takes on impossible tasks or projects
Decisive Shoots from the hip
Hugely enthusiastic about life and life’s possibilities Sometimes becomes victim of his/her enthusiasms and has trouble prioritizing and learning from mistakes
Loyal to a fault, will be there for you when no one else is no matter what Hurts self or project through blind loyalty
Loves to multi-task Careless with details
Can hyper-focus when highly interested, or in danger, crisis Complete lack of attention when not interested or when situation is calm
“Gets it” fast; a quick study Hates prep work
Big picture person Overlooks important parts of project or idea, blinded by enthusiasm for big picture
Delves deeply into task and becomes oblivious to all else Poor or absent sense of time and external environment
Honest, hates hypocrisy Tactless, not politically correct
Values excellence, talent Hates entitlements, politics
Intuits or “sees” solutions, possibilities, novel approaches Can’t explain methodology or teach others how he/she does it
Life marked by flashes of brilliance Inconsistent; can’t be brilliant on demand or on schedule
Doesn’t wait for permission; takes action while others fiddle and diddle Gets into trouble by not going through proper channels
Loves the chase Quickly bored, even depressed, after victory; Trouble savoring the moment at any length
Great sense of humor Can be inappropriate
Thrives in crisis, danger Antsy, bored amidst stability
Passionate Headstrong; Loses perspective, balance easily
“Yes” is default position “No” is foreign word
Sees solution, has excellent plan Doesn’t get around to implementing solution, acting on plan
Dreams big Builds castles in the air
Charismatic Relies on charisma rather than well-thought out strategy
Unbelievably hard-working Takes on too much; fails to reach goals due to overload
Self-reliant Trouble delegating, listening to others, trusting others to do job as well as he/she would
Amazing ability on the run, can learn how to fly in mid-air Hates to read directions
Embraces, challenge, danger, uncertainty Finds stability and security tedious, tends to sabotage or blow them up
Drives toward goal with herculean determination Can become explosively angry when frustrated, sidetracked, or interrupted
Entertains many possibilities simultaneously, anticipates danger before it happens Can be a toxic worrier, getting caught up in “the infinite web of ‘what-if?’ ”
Able to juggle many projects, ideas at once Sometimes juggles too much, drops balls
Can avert disaster at the last minute, turn catastrophe into victory Procrastinates and in other ways sets things up so that disaster looms likely

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