This is the part where I’m supposed to give you a list of traits you need to be successful as an entrepreneur.
Or I would if I was writing clickbait rather than a serious guide.
I recently googled “Do I have the entrepreneurial spirit?” and got nearly 65 million results.
Most of the relevant results were lists of traits.
Some common themes:
- Calculated risk-taking
- Hard work
I don’t dispute the importance of any of these characteristics for entrepreneurial success, but these traits are widely held by many people and they certainly don’t guarantee success.
I’ve been observing successful entrepreneurs for a long time, and I believe there is one characteristic that’s most critical for success:
Mindfulness is a term that seems to be everywhere these days.
It is used to the point where it can seem meaningless.
At its most basic, mindfulness means being focused on what’s actually happening in the present, without spinning a narrative about what it means or comparing it to what other people are doing or thinking.
It also means not continually regretting or reliving the past or worrying about things that might possibly happen in the future.
Truly mindful individuals always know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.
This may seem simple, but if you really think about it, a lot of the things we do on a day-to-day basis are essentially mindless.
We do them out of
- because someone told us to,
- or just because they are part of a routine.
If you are looking at your day mindfully, you are carefully considering the purpose and desired outcome of all your actions and making sure you’re doing them for the right reasons rather than chasing false hopes and expectations.
Approaching your life this way will profoundly change your perspective in very fundamental ways.
Let’s take a simple example—driving.
People have a tendency to get angry and aggressive when they drive, for no good reason.
And it only hurts them.
Let’s say the light you’re waiting at turns green and the car in front of you is slow to start moving.
You get furious and curse at the other driver, maybe even blow your horn.
Where does the anger come from, and what purpose does it serve?
Mindful individuals realize that their anger does not help them in any way.
They’re not going to get where they’re going any faster, and the aggravation just raises their blood pressure and makes their day worse.
As you can see, mindfulness encourages you to examine your thoughts and emotions to truly understand where they’re coming from.
Doing so allows you to see much more clearly why you’re doing what you’re doing, and whether it fits into your goals or even whether it makes sense at all.
With this in mind, let’s examine how mindfulness informs the internet’s list of “essential entrepreneurial traits.”
- Are you doing what you’re excited about?
- Is it meaningful to you?
- Do you feel strongly that it’s what gives your life purpose?
If not, you’re probably pursuing entrepreneurship for the wrong reasons.
Many people are attracted to entrepreneurship because they want to make a lot of money, but starting a business purely to make money is a mistake.
The road to entrepreneurial success is…
- and extremely uncertain.
Chances are good that you will fail, at least at first.
Not to mention that the process of starting a new business will take up most of your time and energy.
If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, chances are you’ll lose interest, and at the very least you’ll waste a lot of time being unhappy.
You may have heard that many people are attracted to entrepreneurship because they are independent and want to work for themselves.
This is largely a myth.
There is no such thing as a “lone wolf” in business.
You are always accountable to someone, even if you don’t have a boss.
Entrepreneurs are accountable to stakeholders such as…
- and employees.
You can’t just do whatever you want, and the more your business grows, the less freedom you will have.
There are occupations that are essentially solitary, but the domain of business is largely a social network.
Being mindful means understanding what you’re passionate about and why.
If you love what you’re doing, you’ll excel at it. If you don’t, you’ll be miserable.
It’s important to make major life decisions for the right reasons.
Starting a business is hard, and there will be many failures and frustrations for each success.
This is simply a reality of starting a new business.
Mindful individuals accept these bumps in the road for what they are—setbacks on the path to achieving larger goals.
They don’t worry about…
- things they can’t control,
- stress out about possible future outcomes,
- or engage in negative self-talk when things don’t go their way.
No one is perfect, and we all make many mistakes throughout our lives.
Mindful people recognize this and are quick to forgive themselves when they screw up.
The past has already happened. The future is unknown.
The only thing we can control is what we do in the present moment.
Mindful individuals keep an eye on long-term goals, without being distracted by day-to-day hindrances or the doubts and negative feedback of well-meaning individuals.
This doesn’t mean that mindful entrepreneurs don’t take advice.
The trick is to know the difference between advice and negativity.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once referred to this mindset as “stubborn but flexible.”
Everyone has advice for those starting their own businesses.
That advice can be particularly insistent from people who have never started a business themselves.
It also tends to be overwhelmingly negative.
Everyone is in a rush to tell you why you aren’t doing the right thing.
That doesn’t mean they are wrong.
Successful entrepreneurs have the capacity to mentally sift through the feedback they’re getting, ignoring the unhelpful advice but being ready, willing, and able to act quickly when they hear something that makes sense to them.
This mental sifting is an important part of the decision-making process, but it also invites falling prey to shiny object syndrome.
Like a magpie that lines its nest with every shiny object it can find, entrepreneurs who fall victim to shiny object syndrome chase after every new opportunity that looks promising to them without thinking through their choices or asking critical questions about utility and need.
Instead, mindful entrepreneurs maintain their long-term vision about where they are headed and what they want their venture to ultimately look like, but they recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that changing conditions may warrant changing tactics or strategies along the way.
I addressed the concept of risk at length in the previous article, so I won’t belabor those points here.
Adopting a mindfulness perspective leads people to favor action over endless analysis.
The perpetual analysis hamster wheel that exhaustively explores every option and postpones action indefinitely has aptly been referred to as “paralysis by analysis.”
It should go without saying that talking about taking action is a lot less helpful than taking action.
Mindful individuals are not afraid to fail; in fact, they prefer to adopt a scientific approach of constant experimentation in which failures teach you as much as successes do.
If something isn’t going to work, it’s much better to “fail fast” and find it out quickly rather than waste time on a path that will not lead you to achieve your goals.
It takes a lot of hard work to start a business successfully.
Then again, it takes a lot of hard work to do almost anything worthwhile in life.
This is what makes a mindful approach to entrepreneurship so essential—the key is to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
This is what mindful people do.
The notion of hard work really has to do with work-life balance, and there is no right or wrong answer to the topic.
Some people feel the need to “#hustle” 24/7 in order to be successful.
This obviously depends on a multitude of factors such as the type of business you are starting or your personal skills (to name a few) but there is no way around it—you are undoubtedly going to have to sacrifice much of your leisure time.
Not to mention potentially much of your disposable income and/or savings.
Mindful people adopt the mentality of sacrificing in the short term for long-term gains.
If everything you do is in furtherance of where you want to be, and you’re working in an area that you’re passionate about, you won’t perceive your activities as “work.”
Rather, they’re simply what you do.
This quote, while perhaps cliché, sums up the mindful entrepreneur’s approach to hard work:
“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
It turns out that mindfulness has an analog in psychology: the concept of flow.
If you have ever felt like you were “in the zone,” congratulations—you have achieved a state of flow.
Flow is the focused, productive, and uplifting feeling that comes with being totally immersed in a task.
When you are in a state of flow, you lose track of time.
Your concentration and focus are completely dedicated to the task at hand.
What kinds of tasks produce a flow state?
Those that present a challenge and that is intrinsically rewarding.
Flow is mindfulness in real-time.
Another way to think about flow is to define it based on what it’s not:
- and worry
…are states of mind that contrast with the flow.
When a task is much too difficult for our skill level it can cause feelings of worry and anxiety, as well as a feeling that we are not in control.
Conversely, tasks that are no challenge at all or those that do not have outcomes that we view as valuable can cause boredom and apathy.
Flow, then, is the sweet spot between a task that is too challenging and one that is too easy—and has an outcome that we are invested in.
Obviously, flow is the optimal state for learning and productivity.
More than simply being a tool for getting the most out of your time, being in a state of flow feels good.
It is a goal not only in the sense that it allows us to work at peak performance but in the sense that it leaves us feeling tremendously fulfilled by the work that we do.
Psychologists have conducted large amounts of research on how to achieve the flow state, but the short answer is mindfulness.
When you exhibit the mindful approaches to
- and resiliency outlined above,
you’re inviting the flow state.