Entrepreneur? What the hell is that?

Earl R Smith II, PhD


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Last week I could not even spell entrepreneur now I are one!

One of the traps that self-identified entrepreneurs find themselves in comes as a result of a combination of a misunderstanding of the word entrepreneur and a lack of self-knowledge. I’d like to focus on each in turn.

Entrepreneur: I have found that the word has been so stretched as to be almost meaningless. Let’s start with the dictionary definition:

a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.

That sounds pretty straightforward. But here’s the rub. What does ‘business or businesses’ mean? To some, those words mean a rapidly growing company that employees a growing work force and has a substantial and growing stream of revenue. To others it means a fast food franchise of a private consulting practice. I think you will agree that the two meanings create a very different definition of entrepreneur and the list of who is an entrepreneur.

So here is a list of professions. Which one do you think qualify as entrepreneurs?

  • An individual who develops a product or service, builds a team, assembles financing and manages a rapidly growing company
  • A consultant who sells social media services
  • A used car salesman
  • A self-help guru who sells books and seminars
  • A televangelist selling miracles in exchange for contributions
  • A scammer who sells fake followers on Twitter
  • A doctor, lawyer, accountant or hypnotist who is selling expertise
  • A con man selling dreams to elderly women

Well, it’s a pretty extensive list and surely could be expanded but I think it will do to make my point. Words either mean something or they mean nothing at all. To quote Lotfi Zadeh, the father of complexity theory, “When all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” To put it another way:

“If you mangle words to fit who you think you are; every word begins to ‘fit’ who you are.”

There are some people who are either faintly or grossly antisocial. They can’t work in organizations because eventually they piss their co-workers off. As a result, they lead a relatively lonely life as a ‘consultant’. It is so easy for these people to claim the relatively positive description of entrepreneur. It sounds so bohemian! But as an old friend used to say,

“We can widen your mouth, cut off your legs and paint you blue but that won’t make you a mailbox.”

My point here is that people tend to choose value loaded words to describe themselves even if it means mangling the words beyond recognition. I encounter this behavior frequently during my mentoring engagements.

So What’s the Problem? The first problem is that there is often a very wide gap between the manufactured self-image which is encrusted with these mangled words and the real person at the core of this manufactured mess. People will go through life telling themselves and all who will listen that they are an entrepreneur. But when the listener digs a little deeper, their understanding begins to be at odds with that of the ‘entrepreneur’.

The second problem is that such a manufactured mess virtually guarantees that self-knowledge will be virtually impossible to attain. People who use mangled words to describe who they are not only do not understand the meaning of the words – they also lack the brave self-understanding that is necessary to achieve self-knowledge. A contract between two approaches to self-knowledge might help.

Christians believe that the contents of an old book tell them who they are. Self-knowledge is of little use or no use because knowledge of what’s in the book is sufficient. By studying the book and abiding by its strictures, one becomes a ‘good person’. So the journey to self-knowledge is one of going outside yourself and into the book.

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