03 September 2018 -

Entrepreneur Entrepreneurship could be fuelled by tough childhood experiences

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

I have never interviewed a successful entrepreneur who doesn’t have ‘a monkey on his/her shoulder’. Equally, I have never met one who has not tasted the bitter fruit of disappointment and failure and yet bounced back, having learned a valuable lesson. A central question for both lay people and researchers is the make-up and motivation of entrepreneurs.

Read more: Bouncing Back: how real managers bounce back from adversity

Somehow the academic literature on entrepreneurship fails to capture the dynamism and variety of entrepreneurs. The researchers list all sorts of highly desirable traits like drive and energy, self-confidence, persistence in problem solving and tolerance of uncertainty. Very rarely is there anything counter-intuitive on the list.

My interest in entrepreneurs is where their drive comes from. The older I get the more I am convinced that we are products of our past rather than victims of our childhood. And I am eager to uncover patterns in those who have succeeded as entrepreneurs in different sectors and in different times and countries.


My data suggests that many entrepreneurs have suffered early setbacks, particularly in education. Some were bored, others dyslexic, but many were failures and dropouts who were determined to compensate for their failures.

Psychobiographers have argued that an unsettled childhood can instil self-sufficiency, independence, perseverance, and the ability to cope with the unknown. Early, unspecified crises can imprint children with unusual resolve, as well as drive and risk-taking behaviour. But these events can destroy as well as strengthen people.


I have explored the idea that entrepreneurship is predicted by adversity in interviews, and I have found a higher incidence of early misfortune among business leaders.

Once you have been through a difficult time and recovered, there can be few terrors left in life. Hence the risk-taking behaviour of entrepreneurs.

There are many famous innovators who have had, and recovered from, serious misfortunes of youth. Tchaikovsky, Sartre, Dali, van Gogh and Beethoven experienced bereavement.

Other successful innovators suffered parental cruelty, such as Chekhov, Robert Maxwell, Dickens and Vidal. A few recorded physical and social isolation, notably Joseph Conrad and Einstein. Isolation can prompt children to begin reading prolifically.

Another group of creatives experienced a lack of fixed abode, including Orwell, Kipling and Balzac. The child who has been parachuted into half a dozen schools learns to cope: to make friends, to join groups, to blend in. Boarding school children learn self-sufficiency, as does the international student who has to adapt to new ideas, customs, language and food.

Adversity does not have to be traumatic, though it can be.


Not all successful entrepreneurs I spoke to fitted the pattern. Some seemed to have happy, healthy, normal childhoods. What struck me about them was their determination and how they dealt with inevitable setbacks. In addition, few were driven to be rich: money was how they measured success rather than being a goal. And the quest never ended.

Most were happy to think about their past and its effect on them. But they seemed to have repressed any bad memories. They live in the present and the future, and not the past. They all seemed happy to have discovered what they were good at and eager to exploit those talents.

Interestingly, three entrepreneurs quoted Kipling at me, including the second stanza of IF which goes:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

You need a good idea, talent and some degree of luck to be a successful entrepreneur. But most of all, you need to know how to cope with repeated failures and frustrations to really succeed.

Adrian Furnham is a professor of psychology at UCL.

Read more: The CMI asked managers to share their experiences of overcoming adversity at work in the Bouncing Back white paper. You can read the report and view the statistics online.

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