Entrepreneurial Ego

Sure, company builders insist that they were born to do what they do. But their reasons for that passionate belief have nothing to do with genetics

It's not a statistic that often comes up, but in the 20 years I've worked with entrepreneurs, only one has responded to my counsel by threatening to kill me--and he was at least half serious about it. My offense? I had tried to persuade him to stay completely clear of business matters for all of two months.

The threat came from Tom, a patient who had been referred to me by the human-resources director of a Fortune 100 company. She had coerced Tom into making the appointment as a precondition of her going on a "one-drink date" with him. My experience with referrals like Tom, who cross my transom under duress, had taught me that they were doomed to fail. But I could never have foreseen the unrivaled intensity of Tom's ultimate termination.

Tom had an impressive history of success in fully refurbishing ailing businesses ("Call me the king of the bottom fishers," he would say), by furnishing what he called "new wrinkles to old washups." To his credit, he had many good ideas, including the mass-market pairing of espresso bars and booksellers, long before Barnes & Noble teamed with Starbucks to do it. But despite having earned a small fortune from salvaging business wrecks, Tom was himself a wreck when weekends rolled around. Although he had amassed three foreign cars, two solid-gold watches, and enough suits to shame John Gotti, Tom's evenings were empty. For the most part, he spent them alone--thus, his willingness to do almost anything (even see a therapist) as a precondition of getting together with a woman he fancied.

On those rare occasions when Tom stopped to reflect, he knew his obsessive devotion to work kept him from developing authentic attachments. But achieving success in business was also central to Tom's identity. He felt the kind of genetic link to his work that company builders often profess, insisting that their entrepreneurial spirit is as "inborn" a trait as their eye color. That may or may not be the case, but what is intriguing is that so many successful entrepreneurs feel such a passionate conviction that they were born to build businesses.

When a person deeply needs to receive a certain result from the outside world--business success, for example--psychologists refer to that outcome as having extreme "hedonic relevance." So crucial is that validation to its recipient's pleasurable sense of well-being that his or her physical and psychological health can be affected by it. (Think of Bill Gates facing the prospect of trust busters' splitting Microsoft into several "Baby Bills.") More than for any other professionals, the ups and downs of entrepreneurs' businesses pack hedonic relevance on par with how a parent experiences events in a child's life. It's the depth of their connection with their businesses that convinces entrepreneurs that their work style must be embedded in their genes.

The attachment they feel also explains why separating an entrepreneur from his or her business can be as risky as trying to pry a mama grizzly bear away from her cub--riskier, even, since at least the grizzly knows when to wean her young. Not surprisingly, Tom felt no natural weaning impulse. Even so, working with him to address his loneliness could not have gone better--at the outset.

Tom took on psychotherapy as another turnaround project, with himself as the target, and he took pleasure in uncovering the issues that had contributed to his born-to-build mentality: the fact that his Canadian-born father and mother showed an overt preference for his older brothers, who played hockey--and who got into brawls--rather than studying, as Tom did; his mother's premature decline owing to Alzheimer's disease before, as Tom put it, "she once acknowledged that I was worthy"; and the pressure he felt "to compensate for feeling that because I was physically weak, I would never be a man."

Yet despite the cleverness and intellectual appeal of Tom's therapeutic insights, gaining an awareness of what fueled his "demon" was the easy part of therapy. The hard part was helping Tom extricate himself from the activity that served to make him feel stronger than his brothers were and worthy of his mother's love: rebuilding businesses. His work pattern had developed as a coping strategy, but now it was imprisoning him.

After months of working with Tom, I determined that it was time to ratchet up our goals by proposing that he bypass a business opportunity in California in favor of spending at least two months at a retreat known for its mix of exercise, diet, and personal-development training. My goal in suggesting that Tom, in effect, go entrepreneurially celibate and monastic for a while was simple: in order to have him feel the ways in which his pursuit of professional success covered up his psychological pain, I thought it wise to isolate him from entrepreneurial rewards.

While I never assumed that Tom would jump at my proposal, I thought he would "take his medicine like a man." Was I ever wrong. Tom's response was outrage, calling my suggestion "a request tantamount to asking Bill Russell to 'cure himself of basketball." Then he told me, "I'll get out of shape [at the spa]," and "I'll lose my edge if I stop working." Then, as he glowered and puffed himself up to his full five feet, 10 inches, he added, "So help me, if you ever try to stop me from working again, I'll be the last guy you'll ever screw up. I'll put you out of business, permanently. Know what I mean?"

And with that, he left my office. For good.

Several months later the woman who had referred Tom to me remarked that he was still very lonely. That saddened me, because after all was said and done, Tom had helped me more than I'd helped him. You see, since the day Tom threatened me, I've approached every "born" entrepreneur differently. I never allow myself to forget the "secondary gains" that sustain the work habits that entrepreneurs claim as their genetic inheritance.

By secondary gain, I mean the covert rewards that often fuel disordered behavior. Many phobias--say, for example, a phobia of bridges--are exquisitely useful when they "prevent" a person from coming into contact with "danger" that lies across a particular bridge (the potential for failure, for instance). For Tom, the secondary gain derived from nonstop involvement in business building had become obvious: it was a rationale (to himself and to others) for the loneliness he endured.

Roughly a year after Tom left my practice, a man I'll call Roger came to see me for virtually the same package of problems. When it came time to move Roger to consider loosening his grip on the 8-to-10 schedule that "kept him sane" (his phrase), I was prepared: I suggested that he consider more fully his dream of opening up a chain of wine bars, which would require him to study the industry, learn the laws surrounding liquor sales, and, most important of all, immerse himself in wine, the one hobby that allowed him to extricate himself from business. What I proposed was that he promote his vice-president of operations to chief operating officer, take a three-month leave, and return when he could articulate a business plan for his new venture.

The "medicine" in that plan was embedded within the suggestion of a three-month leave. Functionally, it had the same impact that sending Tom to a spa might have had: the work that afforded Roger myriad secondary gains would not be accessible to him. Roger did take the leave and developed his wine-bar concept, but that's not what elated me. I was proud that with Roger (in contrast to Tom), I had never proposed that the alternative to his entrepreneurship was curative; I just nudged him and let nature take its course.

Roger, by the way, did find what he was looking for after shifting from his primary business to his wine-bar business. He met a woman at an industry conference, and they are currently discussing two joint ventures: marriage and a business designed to exploit the popularity of cigars. If you ask Roger what enabled him to bond with the woman when he did, he might call it kismet. But I know that moving Roger out of his element was key to preparing him for a new set of secondary gains that, instead of masking pain, enhanced pleasure. Whether DNA-driven or not, his urge to build, as it turned out, wasn't restricted to just businesses.

Dr. Steven Berglas is a management consultant and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.