This is a great question, asked and answered, sometimes insightfully, more often not, thousands of times. One problem I have seen with the answers to this question that tend to be less than insightful is that they are offered by people who have never been entrepreneurs, and so the answers can be overly academic, pedantic, or abstract in nature. I have had many folks ask me (or simply opine unsolicited) whether my success as an entrepreneur was due to my success in becoming a Navy SEAL officer. In short, the answer is no. I know several former SEALs who have become successful entrepreneurs to varying degrees (Mark Divine, Mike Johnson, Alden Mills, and Erik Prince, among many others) but more that have not – in numbers that I would venture differ only slightly from a sample of non-SEAL (but non-indigent, intelligent and professional) citizens. I did note one common experience between aspiring to be a SEAL and aspiring to be an entrepreneur, however – how one deals with the naysayers.
My undergraduate degree was Molecular Biology and I had intended to pursue a doctorate degree and go into oncological research. Around my senior year of college I got a wild hair and decided that I wanted to be in military special operations, the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams specifically. For those who knew me, this was a radical change. Although some were supportive, there were a large number of detractors (“haters”) with their own opinions on why I would never make it through SEAL training (“SEALs are all 6’6″, you don’t look like a baby killer, you have to swim 10 miles in uniform just to be considered”, etc.). Despite the superior wisdom of these well-wishers, I made it through SEAL training and enjoyed a successful career in the Teams.
There is another parallel I’d like to point out between my experiences in joining the SEAL Teams and starting my own business. While in basic SEAL training (BUD/S), there was a young psychology MS student who had developed what she considered to be an accurate psychological assessment to determine who would make it through SEAL training and who would not. She convinced the leadership at the training school to administer the test to current students. I “failed” miserably, while a friend of mine also in training maxed the test out, which according to her would have indicated that he would have breezed through training easily while I would have quit early on. My friend ended up quitting about 3 weeks later. Over the years I’ve taken similar assessments designed to determine whether I have a personality suited to be a successful entrepreneur. I don’t know whether I’m unconsciously subverting my own performance on these assessments just to be contrary, but my performance tends to be very low on these as well.
I think the desire to quantify what allows one person to do what many others aspire to but fail to achieve is ubiquitous and persistent, but the actual ability to quantify the same is rare. Why are some entrepreneurs so successful while most others fail? I think, perhaps there is a parallel to Robert Heinlein’s Schrödinger’s cat in “The Cat Who Walks through Walls” , where the cat could walk through walls literally because no one had ever told it that it could not. I think many people can be successful in achieving noteworthy, difficult things because even though others tell them they cannot, they never really believe the naysayers.
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably correct.” Samuel Johnson (among others).
This article better articulates my lifelong-held belief that a successful entrepreneur simply does things that the majority won’t do or aspire to.