Why Childhood Adversity Creates Great Entrepreneurs

Jason Shuman
4 min readMar 24, 2015

It’s often said that life’s experiences are what mold you into who you are today. Thus, it would make sense that a childhood filled with adversity would teach someone specific lessons that can be used in the real world. Well, luckily for the real world, this idea of childhood adversity is one that I believe tends to create specific personality traits that has helped mold some of the world’s best entrepreneurs.

Look at Elon Musk; born in South Africa, Elon immigrated to Canada against his parents will at the age of 17 to avoid serving in the South African Military. Is it fair to say this event alone helped forge one of the world’s most brilliant visionaries? I don’t know. Chances are it’s a combination of life experiences. But, when asked about his childhood Elon says “I had a terrible upbringing. I had a lot of adversity growing up. One thing I worry about with my kids is they don’t face enough adversity.” Clearly, Musk believes there to be value in adversity, and attributes at least some part of his success to that.

Or, look at Musk’s PayPal Co-Founder Max Levchin who moved to the United States from the Ukraine under political asylum. Levchin dealt with major respiratory issues while growing up. Issues that he overcame in large part through his devotion to playing the clarinet. What many at the time saw as a crazy remedy, Levchin’s “Role Model Grandma” saw as a solution for the young child.

The stories go on and on. Richard Branson is dyslexic. Skinny Girl Founder Bethenny Frankel grew up with an alcoholic mother and absent father. Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty and suffered from a childhood filled with sexual abuse.

I can’t say that I’ve personally heard these people attribute a large portion of their success to the adversity they faced early on. However, I can say that I’ve identified an unquestionable value in adversity and the role which it has played in the lives of my friends and my own.

At the end of the day, to me, the most successful entrepreneurs aren’t the ones who are being driven by notoriety and money. Internally, it’s something different that drives them to be successful, and drives them to change the world. As an early stage venture capitalist one of my goals is to figure out if the founders that we’re speaking with on a daily basis have this internal motivation.

In addition to this internal vs. external motivation, successful entrepreneurs tend to have specific traits that help them achieve what most people can’t even fathom. I believe that one indicator of these traits is childhood adversity, which helps develop the following 4 traits. 4 Traits which are quite useful in starting and running a successful company:

1. Early Maturation — Early maturation puts people in the position to socialize with older, more established people. From mentorship to business dealings, a young mature person has more potential of being welcomed by successful people, resulting in exposure to real world dilemmas and an aspirational lifestyle early on.

2. Perseverance — Perseverance. Persistence. Tenacity. Whatever word you want to use, this trait is the most important to have if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter who you are or what company you started, I can guarantee that you’re going to face some low points and have days when you feel alone. When those days come, it’s the determination to reach a high point again that will get you to achieve your goals. From a psychological perspective, Suzanne Kobasa at the University of Chicago is on record of saying that,

“the ability to overcome childhood adversity is related to a personality structure called “hardiness.” It’s your hardiness that “allows you to deal with the stress of solving personal or work problems” and “ the hardy person is able to stay positive under difficult circumstances.” — Suzanne Kobasa

3. The Ability to Put Things in Perspective — Childhood adversity helps entrepreneurs keep things in perspective. When you think about it, experiencing real-life hardship makes all the other problems in life seem minute in comparison. Well, when running a startup you always need to keep things in perspective. From missing your target sales numbers to having key employees leave, problems will always arise and require you to put them in perspective not only for yourself, but your team as well.

4. Having Self Control — Playing off the ability to put things in perspective, childhood adversity most likely drummed up some extreme internal emotions that may never be provoked again. Although too much childhood adversity has correlation to opposite traits of these, most of the entrepreneurs that I know who faced something early on are able to express an incredible level of self-control. Making sacrifices, having difficult conversations, and locking in on your goal are all aspects that I’ve seen exemplified by successful entrepreneurs first hand.

Now many will argue that childhood adversity can also create negative traits, and any average Joe can develop these. While I partially agree, and believe that plenty of successful entrepreneurs didn’t have it “rough” growing up, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Aldridge Foundation found 7 in 10 entrepreneurs cite traumatic childhood experiences as the reasons for their business success.

I’d never wish hardship on anyone. But, I will say that the more adverse experience a Founder has undergone, the more confident I am in his or her ability to achieve their vision. A new generation of entrepreneurs are coming to age. A generation that has witnessed the glorification of entrepreneurship. A generation that has seen technology woven into their daily lives. As a result, one has to be curious and try to understand what it is that creates a certain state of mind. The entrepreneurial state of mind that very few have.

Wouldn’t you you agree?

Do you agree? Follow me on twitter @BoatShuman and let me know your thoughts.



Jason Shuman

VC @PrimaryVC | Startup Nerd | World Traveler | Slow cooker | Boston | The U | Living Life to its Fullest