How an Entrepreneur Imagines the World

I hang around with lots of small business owners and not all are what one would call entrepreneurs. In fact, many are simply people that happen to own a job that pays the bills.

hillcountryhack via Flickr CC

Don’t get me wrong, these are good people, really good people, but calling them entrepreneurs sort of muddies the distinction.

So what is the difference? What are the character traits that one possesses or actions that one endeavors that qualifies them for this often misused label?

I’ve been asked this question repeatedly and until now not come up with a distinction that captured it adequately.

That is until I found myself in the kitchen with my wife.

I think describing the very different ways that my wife and I approach cooking can best capture the difference between how an entrepreneur and the rest of normal civilization view the world.

My wife enters the kitchen, cleans up any lingering messes, imagines a meal, looks up a recipe, acquires the ingredients, carefully measures, mixes and serves the meal all the while cleaning up as she goes. This is, of course, a perfectly logical approach to eating and entertaining.

I, on the other hand, enter the kitchen, figure out what we have on the shelves, ponder combinations of things I like, decide how these things could be combined to make what I hypothesize would be something good to eat, taste, test, add, mix, add more, revel in the odd discoveries, pivot based on what I learn and whisk what seems reasonable onto the plate of anyone I can convince to eat. And, somehow every single pot and pan available gets pressed into service and dirtied.

My wife imagines a future meal based on what she knows and I imagine a future meal based on what I discover as I go, and that I think is as clear a distinction of the entrepreneurial mindset as I can illustrate.

Entrepreneurs don’t learn by thinking, they learn by doing.

I had occasion recently to spend some time with Ned Hallowell, M.D., Ed.D., a child and adult psychiatrist, New York Times bestselling author and leading authority in the field of ADHD.

Hallowell will tell you that an extremely high number of entrepreneurs share many of the same traits as the ADHD patients he has treated over the years. The primary difference is that they’ve been able to channel what is, for some, a debilitation into an asset.

Hallowell’s research and treatment of persons with ADHD is shedding entirely new light on the power of this trait.

In the words of Dr. Hallowell, “In my opinion, ADHD is a terrible term. As I see it, ADHD is neither a disorder, nor is there a deficit of attention. I see ADHD as a trait, not a disability.”

And there, perhaps, you have it – entrepreneurship is a trait, that unmet, untended or unleashed could be considered by some a disability – or you could imagine a world where you discover only by doing.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Sounds like you’re in the Nature camp of the Nature-versus-Nurture argument for entrepreneurial traits.
    The kitchen is a bad analogy for me, since if I cooked that way, 3/4 of the food would be inedible and left on the pots, and we can’t afford that.

  • Becky Logan

    My husband, a corporate sales guy and I just had this conversation last night. He does not understand how I am not motivated by the outcome (i.e. money) but that I love the process and believe the money will follow.

    • Hey Becky – I think that’s another very important element – people that don’t view the world this way have a hard time understanding people that do. It’s like when two people look at the same painting and see very different things.

  • I agree with Becky. Do what you love, the money will follow. I also cook in a very similar way to you John. Search, challenge and create. I think these traits apply to marketers as well as entrepreneurs. I am a marketer and I love what I do, and my entrepreneurial trait continues to thrive on the developmental side of the business and other ventures. Life is way to short for me to sit on the fence and wait for it to happen. 

  • Carrie Chase

    I’ve often thought this was true about my brother who has ADHD and is an entrepreneur. Some of his traits that I didn’t envy when we were kids are traits I now wish I had. However, as you said, you “ponder,” “decide” and “hypothesize” before you do. So maybe it’s a combination of thinking and then doing. And maybe it’s “over-thinking” that kills the entrepreneurial spirit.

  • John… You and I have very similar cooking methods… My wife calls this the “Essence of Bachelor Cooking”… Meaning when you’re cooking for one experimentation is part of the process of survival…

    You’re creating meals from nothing out of necessity… Not unlike Entrepreneurism.

    And that mentality stays with you…


    Ryan H.

    • The thing is my way of cooking, just like entrepreneurial experimentation often turns up dishes that far exceed anything we find in the best cookbooks.

      • A couple of things not clear in the original writing/analogy. One: The entrepreneur may learn by doing, but learn is a key component of that. It all sounds very ad lib and improvised, bu there still has to be a system o for taking the learning and applying it (or re-applying it) the next time, so that the entrepreneur (or cook) can keep building on what’s come before. Otherwise, you’re just doing busy work over and over. That sounds like some entrepreneurs I know, but not like you, at least from what I’ve read! Two: somebody still has to clean the kitchen, the lab, the office, the lawn, whatever the space you work in, and prep it for next time. Just like in marriage, you can’t leave it to the spouse every time, or you’ll quickly burn out a relationship. So how do you handle that in your kitchen or office? Who handles the messes you make on the way to the great dishes?!?!

        • It’s not meant to sound ad lib, I think that the only way to create true innovation is to leave preconceived notions and commit to learning as you go – that’s where the real discoveries come – mostly in what some would view as set backs.

        • Rene – as to the last point – you surrounding yourself with people who love to clean, for whom it helps express their unique ability – that’s an important aspect of making this work.

  • Mark Roseman

    If incompetence and terrible and wasteful use of resources defines entrepreneurship, no wonder so many small businesses fail! 😉 Bon appetit!

    • wow Mark you kind of missed the point, but good thing an entrepreneur created McDonalds for you 🙂

      • Mark Roseman

        I was kidding!

        • okay, but keep your elbows off the table 🙂

  • John,

    How interesting you bring up spouses in the kitchen….

    My husband is left handed, dislexic, and for a long time was a corporate guy.  In 2008, he found himself in a position to pursue entrepreneurship, which was an event in itself.  He approaches the kitchen much like you do, as described above. 

    I’m right handed, a Virgo, and have worked for myself, from my home most of my working life.  I tend to approach working in the kitchen a bit more like your wife does.  I try to work in a clean area, and like to pick up as I go.

    But mainly because I don’t like ants, the left-over aromas…the house is my office, where my husband now leaves in the morning to go to work.  My “office” is my MacBook Pro.  For the past 6 months, I’ve been very exploratory — In the workshop figuring out how I’ll move the needle.

    Ironic, my Twitter account is currently a wreck – there are hashtags alllll over the Hootsuite counter, and I’ve got social networks strung from one end of the laboratory to another.  😉

    Your featured image is indeed appropriate.

    (as commented on Facebook)

  • I’ve often thought that the ADHD label says more about our dysfunctional educational (and perhaps parenting) methods than it says about supposedly disordered minds. 

  • One could add that maybe your entrepreneurs have more of a “nothing left to lose” mentality, with the only option left being thinking your way out.  You can then apply this to anything and everything, while just looking at it as good practice, honing a skill so to speak.

  • “Entrepreneurs don’t learn by thinking, they learn by doing.” I agree with you but everybody will not become entrepreneur but depends on skill and person interest.

  • Bill

    Being an entrepreneur is living with the pedal to the metal.  Always thinking of how to start something, proving it works then hand it off to the organizers and off I go to another adventure.  Entrpreneur, adventurer: o.k. what’s the dif?

  • Barry Osborne

    I strongly believe that an entrepreneur is one who has established many successful businesses not simply one, he/she is a successful business person, taking nothing away from their achievement, but are they really an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is definitely not a stable thinking individual, they love the challenge and taking on the impossible.
    Check my website I just finished last week so please excuse the mistakes, still needs a little work.


    Barry Osborne

  • Mpvallier

    This is so uncanny! I swear my husband and I have had these same conversations! My husband has the entrepreneur habits in the kitchen, and I’m a recipe follower. I definitely agree that this describes the difference that makes someone a true entrepreneur, and those same roles come out when we work on projects together. 
    Also, he has some traits of ADHD, but he uses those to his advantage. He’s never been diagnosed, but it’s never been a problem. Dr. Hallowell is onto something!