Successful small business owners often share a set of common characteristics — things like fearlessness, thinking outside of the box, willingness to fail, drive and determination. Some of us are born with these entrepreneurial instincts. For others, they are acquired skills. The good news is that the latest neuroscience shows that things like conscious habits and mindfulness training can help rewire our brains to be more conducive to entrepreneurship.
We used to think of our brains as fixed and unregenerative in nature. Lately, research into the concept of neuroplasticity has shown that our brains are capable of much more than scientists originally thought. The right kind of stimulation can help repair and heal damage from conditions like Parkinson's disease, and even enhance cognitive function by forming new neural connections.
In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge describes the concept of the plastic brain: “Equipped, for the first time, with the tools to observe the living brain's microscopic activities, neuroplasticians showed that the brain changes as it works. In 2000, the Nobel prize for medicine was awarded for demonstrating that, as learning occurs, the connections among nerve cells increase. The scientist behind that discovery, Eric Kandel, also showed that learning can 'switch on' genes that change neural structure. Hundreds of studies went on to demonstrate that mental activity is not only the product of the brain but the shaper of it."
On a basic level, this means that we become very good at that which we do often, by exercising certain areas of our brain. Not unlike the way our muscles become enlarged through weight lifting. Scientific American cites a 14-year-old study showing that London taxi drivers have enlarged hippocampi — the areas of the brain that control spatial memory — because they have to learn and constantly navigate the complex street grid of Great Britain's capital. More spatial memory capacity would — at least in the days before GPS navigation — make someone a much better taxi driver.
Then what about the entrepreneurial mindset? Let's take look at some of the characteristics of successful business owners.
We often talk about the concept of “thinking outside of the box." So much that it almost feels like a cliché. However, like the famed Apple advertising spot from the late 90s, the ability to “think different" is an essential part of successful entrepreneurship, as is a certain amount of crazy.
“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."
Be Fearless, and Afraid
Where others see risk, entrepreneurial spirits tend to see opportunity. Many business success stories includes a chapter where the owner is maxing out credit cards and putting everything on the line for the big idea. Fearlessness does not always mean that one is without fear, though, nor should it. Shark Tank judge and real estate maven Barbara Corcoran has said that she considers fear an asset, and that people who are "scared to death" tend to work harder and turn their insecurity into focused action.
Willingness to Fail, and Try Again
Another common thread that runs through the stories of accomplished entrepreneurs is failure. Very few succeed right away. Most founders of successful businesses have several failed ventures behind them. According to Forbes, nine out of ten startups will fail. So if you are starting a business, you have to be okay with the fact that it may not succeed. What separates a true entrepreneur from the rest is the ability to start over, to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward.
Starting a business is hard work, and to stay in the game you need a healthy dose of optimism, drive and resilience. Managing stress is a also huge piece of the puzzle — one that we often tend to neglect. The days of the sleepless entrepreneur that runs on coffee and the promise of riches and glory are long behind us. Because having a successful business is worth nothing if your health suffers for it. This is where mindfulness training and neuroplasticity can really help. Daily meditation practice is not just for yogis anymore. It is quickly gaining momentum as a legitimate business strategy, hailed as a key to success by leaders from Russell Simmons and Steve Jobs to Bill Ford and Rupert Murdoch.
“Mindfulness opens up new mental changes conducive to entrepreneurship," according to an article in Inc., which outlines how meditation can improve focus, enhance creative flow, awaken deeper creativity, help you communicate more effectively during stress, manage emotions and build resilience against failure.
The idea of rewiring your brain to enhance your entrepreneurial mindset is an exciting possibility. As with most things, the key is consistency. It takes 21 days to build a habit, so commit to your mindfulness practice — or any other brain training method that feels right for you — for three weeks and see what happens.