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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.

A considerably older approach sees it a different way’ maybe because it is not a religion. Buddhism describes the journey to self-knowledge as one of looking inside yourself. Where the Christian book is full of convoluted rationales and strictures, Buddhism is simplicity itself. Simply put, a person does not become a good person by studying a book but through studying themselves.

Many people lack the kind of self-knowledge that Buddhists develop because they have learned that mangling words is the easier path.

Case Study: I had a mentoring client who evidenced all the characteristics of a faux entrepreneur. During our first session, I asked her to describe herself and the first word she chose was entrepreneur. When I asked her to elaborate, she began describing her work as a personal reputation consultant.

I asked her the logical question. “Why don’t you just describe yourself as a personal reputation consultant?” The response was very telling.

“That sounds a bit tacky. I like entrepreneur better”

“So you are ashamed of what you do?”

“No, it just doesn’t sound as substantial as entrepreneur.”

“Don’t you think that you are running a con on the people you meet?”

“Well, maybe but I want to sound important to them. First impression you know.”

“Don’t you think that you are coning yourself as well?”

The silence that followed that last question was the door through which we entered a productive mentoring relationship.

The Bower Bird: We started to work on the reasons that she reflexively embellished her self-description.

Bowerbirds are renowned for their unique courtship behavior, where males build a structure and decorate it with sticks and brightly colored objects in an attempt to attract a mate

The first exercise I assigned was to develop a list of characteristics that she had. How would she describe herself? Once the list was settled, we took the words and phrases one at a time. “Does this one really fit?”, was the foundational question each time. Often there were spirited defenses of words that seem to be a more important part of her self-image. At other times, words and phrases were discarded with little objection. As a result, the list was pared down to a half dozen. Entrepreneur still surviving the cut.

Then we shifted to how useful each word was in getting people to understand who she was and what she could bring to the table. It was that exercise that broke through the manufactured mess. The realization that the word entrepreneur was so overused that it was virtually meaningless brought about a change in her attitude towards it.

Then came the pivotal question. “If I am not an entrepreneur, what am I?”

It took months to work through but, in the end, she gained that brave self-understanding that she can lean her dreams upon. Now when she tells people who she is and what she can contribute, it is the beginning of mutual understanding.


© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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