If you’ve never founded a company, rest assured it never happens as elegantly and smoothly as articles in Inc. and other business magazines or case studies suggest. In fact, the process can be downright dysfunctional—which is why, if you happen to come from a dysfunctional family, you’re probably better prepared for start-up life than most.

Founding a company is a sheer act of will and tenacity in the face of immense skepticism from everyone—investors, customers, friends, family, and employees, to name a few. The founder takes his or her vision of the opportunity—one only she may see—and assembles financing, a team, a product, and marketing  to execute against all rational odds.  And that’s just to get started. 

Next come the daily crises of product development and acquiring early customers.  And life gets really interesting when the reality of product development and customer input collide, the facts change, the business model changes, and stuff happens.

Anyone who can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, isn’t totally oriented for action, and has no sense of urgency, is in the wrong business. Very often, if a founder is waiting around for someone else to tell him what to do, the company is near death. 

Great founders live for chaotic moments. But who the heck are they, and where do they come from? How do you find—or, better, create—individuals who operate serenely in chaos, and know when to punt, duck, or even run for cover? How do you find people who can focus relentlessly for days on end, without being distracted by the noise around them? Are these skills teachable? I don’t think so. But they’re learnable—and often taught too damn well to children raised in dysfunctional families. In many ways, the environment of the dysfunctional family is quite similar to that of a start-up.

Wired for chaos 

Whether the cause is drugs, alcohol, unemployment, or worse, fighting and abusive behavior are often the norm in dysfunctional families. While most children are hurt badly in the process, some whose brain chemistry and wiring is set for resilience come out of this with a compulsive, relentless, and tenacious drive to succeed. They have learned to function in a permanent state of chaos. And they have channeled all this into whatever activity they could find outside of the home: sports, business, or …entrepreneurship. 

In almost every class of entrepreneurs I teach, I ask the question, and a staggering number of hands goes up each time(and that’s after I tell people to leave their hands down if they want to keep their childhood private).  I’ve been surprised at the data. In this admittedly very unscientific survey of more than 1,000 students, I’ve found that between a quarter and half of those I consider “hard-core” entrepreneurs (working passionately to found a company) characterize their upbringing as less than benign. And lots of wildly successful founders I’ve met and worked with have acknowledged that they would have raised their own hands had they been in my classroom.  

These are people who grew up in an environment where nothing was the same from day to day, where the only predictable thing was unpredictability.  And somehow, each day, the resilient ones make order out of total chaos, just as most start-up CEOs do each day. 

The dysfunctional family theory may also explain why founders who excel in the chaotic early phases of a company throw organizational hand grenades into their own companies after they find a repeatable and scalable business model that’s “humming,” which is often not the climate in which they do best. Repeatability represents the extreme discomfort zone for some entrepreneurs, who then try to create chaos— “it’s too calm around here”—and actually self-destruct. 

Is this you? 

If you just said to yourself, “Oh my gosh, this is me,” beware. Your dysfunctional childhood may serve you well in some respects but not all. Think about the things you need to do to compensate for your upbringing.  Obviously, slowing down is not one of those things. But do consider: 

  • How good are you at giving clear, consistent direction to those around you?
  • When you’re blocking out “noise” or chaos, are you keeping an ear tuned to things that may be important to you, your company, and your people?
  • Do you really listen to people, or do you jump to conclusions about what they’ll say?
  • Do you get frustrated, bored, or worse when things seem to be running smoothly? How do you “control” yourself when it’s going well?
  • Do you react differently to people who might remind you of your younger days? How can you adjust your attitude toward them? 

Maintaining good work/life balance and family relations is tough enough on entrepreneurs today. So please, whatever you do, inspire your offspring to be great entrepreneurs without the “dysfunctional family” approach.