How Dropping out of School for Surfing Led to the Discovery of The 11 Instincts of The Worlds Greatest Entrepreneurs

San Onofre, CA, photo by Luke Chavez

It was my senior year with just one semester until graduation, but I was impatient and distracted by what’s next. So naturally, I left school 3 months early and moved to the Big Island of Hawaii to surf, work, and start saving money.

What I didn’t know then and I’m grateful for now, was that my impatient, ADD-driven decision would accelerate my life long education in entrepreneurship.

That was 28 years ago. In each of those years I’ve diligently, maybe even obsessively, observed how people build great organizations. Along the way I’ve tested and tweaked those techniques in the companies I’ve led.

In 2004, I was asked to speak at a venture capital conference. The topic? Entrepreneurship. A one-word topic is deceptively challenging. Where would I begin and where would I take that?

As I dug into my old notes and dog-eared books about inspiring figures like Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia combined with my personal experience, I began to recognize a valuable consistency. It was this: behind every great organization was an individual or small team who exhibited a uniquely specific set of instincts.

These are the Entrepreneurial Instincts that enable rather ordinary men and women to create visionary, impactful organizations from an idea. It’s an amazing and miraculous process to witness and experience.

However, “Entrepreneur” isn’t a label reserved only for the builders of businesses. It’s an accurate label for someone who leads the establishment of any organization. It’s a label for the builder of any successful movement, cause, project, team, or group; large or small.

Like a great athlete or musician with natural instincts, some people are born with obvious entrepreneurial gifts. Others…not so much. But like sports, music, or anything else, one can choose to learn through study and practice, the instincts of entrepreneurship.

With persistence and patience anyone can become a successful builder of an organization, movement, or cause.

There are few things so satisfying as establishing an organization that produces something of worth, and more important, creates an environment for other people to serve in that cause.

Years of research and experience informed my 30-minute address to that venture capital conference back in 04’, “The Instincts of Entrepreneurship” was the title. When my presentation concluded the audience *stood in a thunderous ovation of cheering and applause.

*The last sentence is categorically false but I did see a few nods of approval. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that there are eleven priceless instincts shared by a world-class fraternity of entrepreneurs that we can study, learn from, and emulate.

While each of the instincts are topics unto themselves, this summary should get your wheels turning:

Visionary: Great entrepreneurs see the future, they anticipate what’s next. As they consider the progress of history, the inventions that changed the world, the skylines of cities, and the companies who employ millions, their nature draws them to build something of their own. They want to make their mark and believe that they can.

Solution-Seeker: Great entrepreneurs look for solutions to problems; all the time. They notice new opportunities while traveling, shopping, or working. Identifying problems and their potential solution is the state of mind that fuels ideation. Also, creativity is a dominant force in this process.

Promoter: Great entrepreneurs are story-tellers who connect with all types of personalities and maximize every new conversation. Whether with partners, investors, vendors, employees, or competitors; every communication is an opportunity to tell the story, strengthen the mission, and lead others to the cause.

Motivator: Great entrepreneurs lift everyone around them. The daily routine is often tedious and taxing. People lose motivation. The great entrepreneurs understand the need for incentive, acknowledgment, and balance for those who contribute. Enthusiastic, authentic repetition of the vision, “the why”, is the fuel that feeds the fire.

Hyper-Focused: Great entrepreneurs relentlessly pursue their objective and deflect distraction. While many are known to have an attention deficit, this doesn’t mean that they don’t focus with intensity; they absolutely focus with intensity especially on those things associated with their grand vision. Once the vision takes hold and the journey begins, the focus is sharp and resolute.

Risk-Taker: Great entrepreneurs are willing to step out onto a ledge. To them, “no risk, no reward” is a natural truth. It’s the fundamental factor for crossing the chasm of an idea to an organization. That said, the great ones take calculated risks, carefully balancing potential costs against realistic opportunity.

Tireless: Great entrepreneurs pay the price, period. They are like work-horses that do what it takes without complaint. Those “overnight successes” actually demand many years of hard work, dedication, and incredible sacrifice to get there.

Resilient-Optimist: Great entrepreneurs push through big obstacles. They are very tough and not easily offended. Resilience, optimism and a positive mindset reside in them all. When asked, “What is the fundamental key to your success?”, their unanimous response, “I never give up.”

Flexible-Navigator: Great entrepreneurs are willing to make course-corrections. They understand that emotion and pride must be removed from the process while building an organization. Like a navigator, they always pay attention to the best route according to changing conditions. The right path naturally eventuates to your benefit; if you’re able to recognize it and willing to take it.

People-Person: Great entrepreneurs care deeply about people and people gravitate toward them. Attracting the best talent is more important than the idea itself and the great entrepreneurs understand this. Treating people well, leading well, and serving with care is a fundamental reason why anything worthwhile should be built in the first place.

Perennial-Student: Great entrepreneurs are constantly learning. Ironically, many of them are not accomplished academics, but all of them possess a voracious appetite for knowledge. Reading, thinking, listening, observing, absorbing, teaching, and applying is a way of life; this is a hallmark instinct of every great entrepreneur.

So, how do you measure up? How many of these instincts do you see in yourself?

I’m willing to bet that you’ve got a little bit of each. Some more refined than others. Some neglected because you’ve overlooked their worth.

Whatever the case, whatever your vision; you’ll do well to take some time to sharpen your Entrepreneurial Instincts as you set out to build something awesome.


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