By Neil Seeman

A highly successful businessman telephoned me in July to tell me how my book about the entrepreneurial brain had saved his 30-year-old marriage. “My wife read your findings about how entrepreneurs like me, who outwardly seem successful, are often erratic,” he said. “She couldn’t figure out I why I was so down on myself all the time despite reporters profiling me as some kind of business superhero.”

In the hundreds of interviews I’ve had with entrepreneurs and brain scientists, I learned that entrepreneurs aren’t really how they’re often portrayed in the media—especially those who have built their wealth in order to promote a meaningful goal, a goal formulated early in life, inspired by a parent or a respected mentor. When the company’s stock price plummets, they blame themselves, not because of the personal financial loss, but because the goal seems out of reach. Most entrepreneurs aren’t chest-thumping narcissists. They’ve generally had one to two decades of hard-earned experience under their belt prior to starting their business. They tend to be people open to new experiences; they’re usually extraverts, but sometimes they’re shy. They value independence and control over their own destiny. They appear to be extra-sensitive to surges of dopamine in their brain – not that everyone isn’t vulnerable to the peaks and lows of dopamine but entrepreneurs, perhaps because control is so important to them, have trouble relaxing and letting nature take its course. They put their mental health at risk by trying to control their out-of-control dopamine. This can provoke unexpected panics – a mystery to all around them, even their spouses.

One hypothesis is that entrepreneurs go through a ‘dopamine high rush’ when they first announce a new business venture, and the memory of that high stays with them – an ideal emotional state they constantly seek to regain but can’t. They never feel quite the same high again, even if they work hard, get staggeringly wealthy, and make their business a booming global success. What is a dopamine rush? Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter released from the tips of one brain cell and picked by special receptors on the surface of another cell. There are known to be five different dopamine receptors, each accepting the dopamine molecule and transmuting its message via electrical action potentials down various brain pathways. When dopamine floods our brain, it makes whatever is happening at that moment important, salient, and pre-eminent in its importance. Once that happens, the memory of the event sticks; it’s hard to unlearn. So, starting a new venture and the superhuman feeling that went with it is never forgotten. Steve Jobs likened starting a venture to “putting a dent in the universe.”

It doesn’t need suggesting that this is a difficult goal to reach. It’s often said that many are summoned to entrepreneurship, but few are chosen. What makes entrepreneurs chase the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship? It could, in part, be genetics. In 2010, researcher Nicos Nicolaou at the University of Cyprus and Scott Shane, then at Case Western Reserve, discovered a genetic association between dopamine and entrepreneurship. Based on prior observations that genes associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were six times as prevalent among entrepreneurs as in the general population (this research team studied UK residents who had been diagnosed with ADHD). They found that this sub-population’s DNA configurations were significantly positively associated with the choice of becoming an entrepreneur. ADHD is a mental health risk factor for entrepreneurs.

Dopamine highs are useful in that they are motivators, they help people continue to chase their dreams. But chasing dopamine highs can lead to substance abuse and addiction, three times as common in entrepreneurs as in others. Dopamine highs are followed by dopamine lows. Twice as many entrepreneurs report a history of depression, and three times as many suffer from bipolar disorder when compared with peers in other professions.

Dopamine highs are associated with impulsivity, elevated risk-taking, ambition, overconfidence, extraversion, tenacity, a relative lack of respect for social norms, and symptoms of self-importance or grandiosity. This can lead to a clinical diagnosis of hypomania, periods of intense, elevated energy and mood and insomnia.

Many entrepreneurs, through unique combinations of nature and nurture, are particularly sensitive to dopamine. That sensitivity may be what attracts them to entrepreneurship at first. As a group, they may not just take ordinary risks, they may take foolhardy risks. Instead of taking pleasure in their accomplishments and basking in their success, they seek new highs.

Many entrepreneurs, of course, manage their dopamine very well. What, then, separates those who can do this from those who cannot? The evidence suggests that it comes down to the ability to think ahead and plan long moments of self-reflection. Whether it’s daily meditation, getaways to a serene lake cottage without phone access, or parasailing with friends, you need to be periodically in a faraway mental place, figuratively or literally, away from your workplace. You need a cognitive state where you can reflect and take stock of the reasons you started your venture. You need to reminisce about the talented people who helped you build your company, and about the long-term gains you have provided your family and your community.

Thinking short-term gain doesn’t work. When the entrepreneur pursues ‘fast money,’ he or she puts their dopamine at risk of sharp imbalance. I like to remember the words of Steve Jobs’ widow, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, who felt she needed to explain what her late husband meant by the word “dent” in an interview she gave to The New York Times in 2020. To make a “dent in the universe” requires the entrepreneur to be able to manipulate circumstances, she said, or look “at the design of the structures and systems that govern our society and [change] those structures.” The “dent,” in other words, is meant to strengthen the wealth and welfare of a community, not one’s own alone. That is the critical quality—looking beyond oneself. It ensures personal balance and equanimity, and it promises a prosperous future for generations to come.

Neil Seeman is an entrepreneur, author, and founder of RIWI, an international data analytics firm. A Senior Fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto, he is the author of “Accelerated Minds: Unlocking the Fascinating, Inspiring, and Often Destructive Impulses that Drive the Entrepreneurial Brain,” published by Sutherland House.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed