Friday, June 11, 2010

Father's Day musing: Is entrepreneurship genetic?

Is entrepreneurship genetic? As the freelancer son of a self-employed dad, it didn't surprise me to learn that a study from Case Western Reserve University discovered a hereditary component: roughly one third to 40 percent of the tendency to be an entrepreneur is innate rather than taught. Independence, tolerance for risk, ability to recognize opportunity, and leadership are all affected by your genes. The study's author, Scott Shane, published "Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Worklife" this spring.

My dad died a few weeks before Father's Day in 2000. (Far too young, five months shy of his 60th birthday.) Like me, he had spent his early career in corporate jobs — in sales rather than editorial — before becoming self-employed. A few months into my first "real world" job after college, I was whining to him on the phone about some office injustice or another, and he came right out and said, "You know, you're eventually going to work for yourself."

As is the case for many hereditary traits, it took an environmental trigger to actualize my entrepreneurial gene as a freelancer not quite a decade later. In fact, I made the freelance leap just a few months before my dad passed away, but I sensed that among all the people who were worried as hell about me and my family surviving (me included), he wasn't concerned in the slightest — he was proud I had the cojones to do it and knew that I'd succeed.

I'd also like to think he knew he had set a business example I could follow:
  • He worked hard in bursts (and took plenty of time off, even random weekdays)
  • He saved enough money during good times that we could squeeze through the occasional rough patch
  • He celebrated success when he made a big sale (I can still taste the sicky-sweet AndrĂ© Cold Duck on my mind's tongue)
  • He was a bullheaded optimist (even during the gawdawful Carter years, when he netted $0.00 a couple of times)
  • He pretty much didn't give a crap about what other people thought 
The time-worn saying is that "the older I get, the smarter my old man was." I don't know if he gave me a freelance gene or sales DNA...and ultimately, it doesn't matter. Regardless of my nature, I value and appreciate my nurture more. Thanks, Dad.

UPDATE: More fatherly wisdom in my new Dr. Freelance post: "Why you need a go to hell fund."

The photo at the top is from '84, when I caddied for my dad in the finals of the golf club championship at our home course south of Boston. He didn't win, but played a gritty, grinding match in his typical style.


  1. Nice little essay, Jake. Happy Father's Day!

  2. What a beautiful post! I'm always fascinated by the topic of inherited personality traits. I'm adopted and have no idea if I inherited anything on that end, but that study sounds interesting.

    Your dad sounds like a cool guy. Nothing like having a great example to learn from. (Did I know you were from Boston? I lived there from the late 80's to the mid 90's.)

  3. Thanks Anon, and thanks Valerie. Dad was indeed a cool guy--in college, the running joke amongst my group of friends was how much cooler our dads were than we were! My favorite example was that my dad would schedule his sales route so he could play hockey for our intramural team. (He was an alum.) We weren't quite Gordie and Mark Howe out there, but a blast nonetheless.

    As far as the Boston connection, I didn't know that. I was born in Framingham, spent most of my childhood in Duxbury with forgettable forays into Connecticut and NJ.

  4. Beautiful, Jake. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Very cool. My dad was a mean, abusive bastard who happened to be pretty I am an over-achiever through fear of failure. He wanted a boy, but got me instead, so he used to say: Act like a lady but think like a man. He could never understand how I could support "all those people". I think I surprised the hell out of him with all that "Over-achieving." We are so much a product of how we were raised and where we came from and thankfully sometimes, successfully move beyond it. Good post, Jake.

  6. Thanks, Geo.

    Adchick, it doesn't surprise me at all that you transcended your circumstances. I know I drew a lucky card with my dad, who himself was the product of a divorce (at age 5) back in the days when nobody got divorced. Thanks, as always, for commenting!

  7. Ahhh. Dad.
    I lost my Dad young, and he was young too--67. I sympathize. My Dad was my hero. Still is.

    Interestingly, he was also self-employed. As was my Mom's Dad. It was pretty much everywhere in my family. The last real corporate job I worked was when I was 19. Hopefully I'll never return. I'm sure a big slice of that moxie is from watching my Dad maneuver through life--somehow always managing to make ends meet and put food on the table. Some years were lean--and some were flush.

    My Dad's work ethic is my own. I'm on time, proactive, people-oriented and hard-working.

    My thoughts will be with you on Father's Day. Even though our Dads aren't with us, we still have cause to celebrate.

    And I love the pic.

  8. Thanks Jake, he is truly missed. I remeber following the two of you that day and caddying on another. As taught, I still keep a book next to the bed and wake up to "jot" something down when the need arises. So sad it was so early. Miss ya Dad.

  9. Sweet post, Jake. Gawd, wouldn't he be horrified to know I work for the gubmint! ;)

  10. @Catherine--thanks for your comment and sharing your experience. Moxie is a key component to success at this game, ain't it?

    @Ben, yes, great memories...and the pad next to bed, ha!

    @Liza, I think his "tree hugger" side would be proud that you work promoting the outdoors. And more than anything, he'd be horrified about Apple having a higher market cap than MSFT.