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How Not to Get Sucked Into the Cult of the Entrepreneur

You're an entrepreneur. You're living the American Dream, which makes you part of an admirable bunch. But don't let it go to your head.
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Entrepreneurs get a lot of respect. It's not just having money or being in a powerful position, although many people in business qualify on both counts. Entrepreneurs in particular touch a chord in the national psyche. They're a symbol for the sense of unlimited self-creation that has been a draw for millions of immigrants back to the times they arrived after perilous sea voyages in leaky ships.

Increasingly, however, the respect has turned into hero worship. And with that comes a dangerous problem called "believing your own press." Many assumptions about entrepreneurs--particularly in high tech, but not limited to that industry--are becoming the basis for full-out belief systems, with the entrepreneur taking up the role of today's Horatio Alger.

As Alice Marwick argued recently in Wired, there's an eerie sameness in many of the most respected entrepreneurs.

But if the tech scene is really a meritocracy, why are so many of its key players, from Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs, white men? If entrepreneurs are born, not made, why are there so many programs attempting to create entrepreneurs? If tech is truly game-changing, why are old-fashioned capitalism and the commodification of personal information never truly questioned?

The Problem

There's a saying that winners write the history books. That is often true. But more importantly, winners often believe the history books. They are sure natural genius and hard work got them what they have, and nothing more.

Not a chance. Absolutely a successful entrepreneur will work tremendously hard. But there are many other factors that play into the winner's circle: opportunities that may not have been available to everyone else, often exposure to elite education, luck, and, yes, connections. As any cultural phenomenon, entrepreneurs benefit from some variation of the Old Nerds Network.

Maybe, like Mark Zuckerberg, your first investors were wealthy fellow Harvard students. Perhaps a Stanford professor made introductions, or you had a chance to develop an initial concept as a thesis project. Alumni might have given you the tacit nod. Early on, someone might have helped you learn an important lesson or concept that helped strengthen your entrepreneurial bent. Or maybe others pioneered concepts that didn't make them wealthy but that opened a door for your ideas. No one is completely self-invented. Even a Jay Gatsby had significant help.

Luck offers an enormous hand. Many people who were equally talented with interesting ideas and a willingness to work like dogs missed a window of opportunity.

The overall entrepreneurial culture reinforces itself and the goals, methods, and paths that people use to reach great success. Eventually you hit a problem if you're part of this calcifying matrix. You begin to seek only what you already assume is cause and effect, passing by strategic options that don't fit your preconceptions, and yet that could open a new door or opportunity. The willingness to buy into an image can run so far that it becomes a self-parody, like the study by the University of California at Riverside and the London School of Economics. It found that CEOs and corporations that worked hard to burnish their images as good corporate citizens were actually "more likely to engage in irresponsible actions," said Elaine Wong, an assistant professor of management at UCR and a co-author of the study.

As this year winds to a close, try to reflect on all the advantages you have had, no matter how subtle, and listen harder to the people who don't fit in the mold. You never can tell if the day might come when you could wind up working for them.

Last updated: Dec 2, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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