Small Business

The careful balance of personality traits that predict success as a solo entrepreneur (it might not be what you think)

As I said on my podcast last week, keeping your business viable takes a combination of backbone and common sense. Life isn’t like the movies; the plucky heroine (who is somewhat lacking in self-control, but hey, she’ll fight you to the death) doesn’t usually come out on top in the reality we live in.

Neither does captain sensible. That person who assesses risk at every single turn will often die of analysis paralysis.

You need a foot in each camp to keep your balance and stay the course.

Today I’m writing instead of podcasting, as I wanted to go deeper on this topic. I want to go beyond the quote cards and give you real, tangible how-to steps for keeping your business s**t together.

Let’s rewind several years to my university days. I was studying cognitive neuroscience, at the time with a general view to helping people. I didn’t yet know that those people would be solo entrepreneurs. But I was always interested in human behaviour, and specifically how high achievers set about hitting their lofty goals.

I think that most people can spot a person with limited potential a mile off. And often these are limits imposed by the person themselves. Limiting beliefs or a bad attitude to life are common tells.

But then there are many others, especially in the personal development world, who have drive, passion, and incredible tenacity to go make something amazing from their lives. Yet as the entrepreneurial jungle drums call to us, there is always the familiar whisper of concern from our friends and family…

“It’s tough building a business of your own. Why don’t you work for somebody else?”

“There is too much risk? Aren’t you afraid you will go broke?”

Albeit genuine concern for our welfare, we can’t stand to turn our back on our big dream.

So here’s the BIG question. You’ve got the passion, the vision, and the bags of energy required to go make something amazing happen. But how do you know if you have a really good chance of making it? How can you quiet the anxiety and trust in yourself more?

Well, obvious things like a solid business plan aside, there are certain personality traits that you might already have, but also may be able to work on embodying more of.

And no, I’m not saying you should or even could change your personality. I’m saying that in the personal development world we choose which parts of ourselves to nurture; those good habits that ways of thinking that lead to better outcomes. So what follows are my two best, most tangible tips for embracing a healthy balance of backbone and common sense to see you on your way to entrepreneurial success.

  1. Learn to manage your executive functioning


That post-journaling sigh of relief is more than a feeling – I promise you! And I can back this up with Neuroscience.

The human brain has something special – that extra lump of grey and white matter above our eyebrows – the pre-frontal cortex. This brain region is associated with all those ‘executive functions’ that we can only assume other species don’t have.

We make our most complex decisions there. If you were being chased by a bear, your decision making process will likely not require your pre-frontal cortex. Your visual cortex has already instructed your brain stem to raise your heart rate, and your legs snap into motion.

But when we have to decide to leave a job, end a relationship, take one bank loan over the other – we need to juggle a lot of mental balls. Now where we often trip ourselves up is we try to juggle all the mental balls at once – and neuropsychological research tells us there is actually a limit.

Think of your working memory (located on your pre-frontal cortex) as a tiny little nightclub. There is a capacity, and a grumpy security guard on the door counting people one in and one out. Your working memory, according to research, has room for 7 mental balls at once – this is rapidly turning into a ball pit party, which sounds kind of fun!

But when you have 7 mental balls to juggle, the club is full and therefore doesn’t run as well. There’s a queue at the bar, a queue for the toilets, and it’s just not very efficient. This is why making a big decision feels so hard. But there is a simple hack.

The trick is just to write everything down. Each item is a mental ball that you no longer have to juggle once it’s left your brain and has been put down on paper. You no longer strain to remember all the balls, as they are in front of you in black and white. Your working memory has its full capacity back to work on one ball at a time, making better decisions more efficiently.

If, personality-wise, you are the sort of person who panics when there is too much going on or big decisions to be made, then this trick is ideal for you. Remember to write everything down, free up that mental capacity, and take your time.

  1. Practice the artful pivot


The entrepreneur’s artful pivot is the ultimate meeting of backbone and common sense. Having the flexibility in your attitude to accept what’s not working in your business, and to embrace the plan b, is like pumping freshly oxygenated blood to your business.

Personality-wise, those of us with a stubborn streak can get stuck here. Hey, it’s not a bad thing. I pride myself on my stubbornness, but only while it is serving me. This “never say die” part of me has seen me through redundancy, brief periods of homelessness, and out of terrible relationships. I just won’t quit on my goals.

However, the artful pivot is all about knowing when to accept that your route to that goal isn’t working. It’s not the goal itself (unless you identify that it’s no longer what you want or need), but rather it’s about the steps needed to get there.

How might this look in the real world? So a classic example is when new entrepreneurs throw themselves into a business idea, quitting their job and taking out a big loan. Yikes! I’ve done this myself, and I learned the hard way about the importance of doing a real business plan first, complete with profit and loss forecast… rather than the ‘wing and a prayer’ approach that I started with!

But of course, the hardest learned lessons are the most valuable ones to pass on.

The key here is flexibility.

I’m someone who likes to get their head down and work until I have a breakthrough. But with time, and a lot of coaching, I’ve learned to also take a regular step back and check in with the big picture. Am I still on course?

Sometimes we need to correct our course, and that may mean accepting changes to the plan. It may also mean asking for help.

This is when you need to swallow a bit of pride and embrace humility. I know this isn’t easy, but it might just save your business.


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