Ever wonder why so many successful entrepreneurs, including icons like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Cuban, also have successful marriages that span the decades? It's not a coincidence. In a Carnegie Mellon study, researchers demonstrated how people with supportive spouses can tend to make bolder decisions that lead them to pursue greater opportunity. Which is pretty much the definition of being an entrepreneur.
Researchers worked with 163 married couples. In each case, one member of the pair was given the choice between working on a puzzle or competing for a prize. Then the researchers observed the couples' interactions.
The subjects whose spouse reassured them and encouraged them to take a chance were indeed more likely to compete for the prize. Those with a discouraging spouse, one who doubted they would win, were likelier to opt for the puzzle instead.
It may not seem very profound to note that people whose spouses encouraged them to take a risk were more willing to take one. But that dynamic continued beyond the experiment. At a six-month follow-up, those who had chosen to take a chance on the more challenging task also reported "having more personal growth, happiness, psychological well-being, and better relationships," according to a statement from Carnegie Mellon. It seems that the experiment revealed a pattern in these relationships. The husbands and wives who encouraged their spouses to pursue greater opportunity by competing for the prize brought that same attitude to other areas of the relationship. In particular, they encouraged their spouses to pursue opportunities in their work lives. And those spouses benefited from that encouragement, went after the bigger opportunities, and were generally more successful as a result.
"Significant others can help you thrive through embracing life opportunities. Or they can hinder your ability to thrive by making it less likely that you'll pursue opportunities for growth," said Brooke Feeney, psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon and lead author of the study.
Do you encourage your own spouse?
I recently came across this study and I've been giving it a lot of thought, because that's exactly how things have worked in my own marriage. For almost 25 years, my husband, Bill, has always been my biggest cheerleader, encouraging me to go after the things I really want. I often wonder how my career might have been different if I hadn't had Bill rooting for me, making me feel like I could take a chance and pursue the kind of customers I really wanted, even if the competition was stiff and the outcome uncertain. If it didn't work out, he made me feel like that would be all right, we would figure out our next step together.
Even more important, I knew that if I failed and was emotionally crushed, he'd be there to comfort me and pick up the pieces. That meant I could safely risk failure and rejection. So I've seen the effect Feeney described firsthand. I've tried to do the same for my husband, although I'm definitely not as good at it as he is.
What does this mean for your own relationship? For one thing, consider how you encourage your spouse or partner when he or she is facing a challenge or considering an opportunity. Do you focus on the risks or do you tell your partner to go for it? Obviously, every situation and every opportunity is different, so it may not always be appropriate to encourage your significant other in every pursuit. But keep in mind that, in general, the more you encourage your partner to take up worthwhile challenges, the more successful he or she will be and your relationship may be happier as well.
Does your spouse or partner encourage you to go after your dreams? If yes, as the study shows, you're very lucky. If no, this may be something the two of you should discuss, especially if you're an entrepreneur or are planning to become one.
But what if you don't have a spouse or partner at all? Don't despair. You can get that empowering encouragement from others in your life as well. Before I met my husband, my mother often gave me the same sort of support he now does.
The message of the study is that all of us need and deserve the kind of encouragement that helps us succeed and gives us the confidence to be our best selves and follow our biggest ambitions. If you're lucky enough to have that already, treasure it. If you don't, it's well worth trying to find.