Recently, I took part in an Oxford-style debate in Chicago, in which the proposition under consideration was that "Entrepreneurs are born, not trained." It was the classic nature versus nurture type of heated argument between two pairs of seasoned executives and serial entrepreneurs. And truth be told, I think that each of the advocates in the debate (except maybe my debate partner, Amy Wilkinson) could have easily argued in favor of or against either side of the proposition. Amy herself was pretty hardcore on our side of the argument (we were the "trained" or "built" team), and she had some pretty strong ammunition, including her recent research. 

In fact, the entire event was informed and influenced by Amy's participation, since she (after five years of interviewing dozens of hugely-successful company founders) had just published a new book on entrepreneurs called The Creator's Code. It's a must read for anyone who wants to understand what it takes to survive and succeed in the startup world. Amy's book identifies and describes a cluster of distinct abilities that will sound very familiar to any serious entrepreneur, but it also makes the interesting assertion that real break-through success depends on the presence of not some of these talents and capabilities, but ALL of them at the same time and in the same person. Her research shows that every one of the six essential skills that she had identified were present in each and every one of the male and female entrepreneurs in her study. 

The underlying study basically focused on the founders of companies that had reached $100 million or more in revenue over a five-year period. Every one of the founders she spent time with is a household name today, but these people wouldn't call themselves overnight successes. Nor would they say that they achieved their successes alone. In fact, one of the six essential skills is the ability to network and draw talent and resources to your ideas. These narratives are all about striving, persistence, passion, and even patience, which is something we rarely talk about in this context, but it's invaluable to understand that you should never confuse a clear view of where you're headed with the time or distance that it will take to get there or how difficult the journey will be. 

Amy's research also demonstrated that the more times these individuals exercised these abilities and the more businesses they created over time, the better they got each time at the process and the higher the likelihood that they would again be massively successful. Perhaps the prime poster boy (and serial entrepreneur) in the book is Elon Musk for obvious reasons, although, as she noted, nothing was sure or obvious (except his raw intelligence) when he started. In fact, Elon Musk faced the abyss multiple times in several of his most successful ventures, but he never stopped believing. By his own admission, he taught himself a great deal about a number of different industries and, throughout his journey, he learned immense amounts from each and every bump in the road. The bottom line of Amy's research and the most compelling conclusion was that all of these critical tools and techniques can be learned, honed, and improved upon throughout anyone's career and over successive instances of starting new businesses.

Note that I use the term "learned" rather than "taught." So many of the individuals in Amy's study were not classically trained in the areas of their ultimate triumphs. In fact, they were almost all more scrappy and "street smart" than "book smart" in the areas that really mattered to their eventual businesses. This distinction, of course, became a major bone of contention in the debate itself. Our view was that becoming an effective and successful entrepreneur was about experience, iteration, and learned craft (as well as a measure of good fortune) rather than some genetically-determined destiny that inescapably assured you of eventual success. 

Our opponents immediately attempted to pigeonhole us in the academic world and repeatedly stressed that their view of the "training" under discussion was the type that could only take place in the narrowest confines of universities. We countered that they were attempting to make a distinction which made no real difference in the real world. Where and how you gained and developed the skills didn't matter--the point was that none of these talents appears fully-realized and ready to roll at birth or at the outset of anyone's careers. 

As you might expect, there was a lot of loose talk about crazy people, college dropouts, about people happy to take insane risks, about fatal optimists, and about the absolute cream of the crop: those few super entrepreneurs whose names we all know and revere. But, when the dust settled, the thing that struck me at the end of the debate was that we are actually doing so many aspiring entrepreneurs a real disservice by focusing on the very few Michael Jordans of business (who may be amazing--or may just be the luckiest people alive at the right time and right place) rather than on the thousands of hard-working entrepreneurs, who can really learn and benefit the most from the important lessons Amy's book has to share. 

Uber is a great story, but the real growth and expansion of new businesses and the creation of new jobs will come from the hundreds of businesses that apply the new lessons of the sharing economy and "Uberize" their own businesses and industries. Similarly, there will be Airbnb-ish solutions brought forward in many market sectors. All of these successes will be driven by individuals who master and intelligently apply the skills Amy describes in her book, not by the ones who think that the key to success is to emulate Travis Kalanick or Mark Zuckerberg by rocking a hoodie and then sitting by the roadside waiting for the lightning to strike.

Hope is not a strategy for success. Hard work, perseverance, and iteration are.

Published on: Mar 31, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.