Is Business Intellectually Stimulating? If Not, Does Overwhelming Focus Preclude Non-Business Exploration?

A friend recently told me, "If I were to invest in startups, I would pick CEOs who had emotional baggage that caused them to feel an internal need to succeed, like their dad didn’t love them enough or something. Those are the people who are the most driven and obsessed."

Another entrepreneur friend told me over lunch, "I haven’t read anything outside my industry the past six months. I’ve been totally focused."

Ah yes, focus and obsession, those critical components of successful entrepreneurship. Here’s my question: How do you square a natural urge for broad intellectual stimulation with the singular focus a start-up company (or any initiative) usually requires?

I sure as hell don’t want to spend three years in the dark when building a company by only living and breathing my niche within a niche within a niche of an industry. For me, business is kind of intellectually stimulating, but there’s other interesting stuff out there, too. Is it possible to do a start-up while still getting broad intellectual exposure?

Venture capitalists enjoy a more diversified intellectual portfolio in the sense that they have their hand in a variety of companies. But if that’s "diversity" then you could also argue a start-up CEO’s day is diverse since he’s dealing with people issues, tech issues, product dev issues, media issues, etc. Is an "RSS" investment intellectually different from a "security software" investment? Maybe not.

What do you think? Is start-up entrepreneurship intellectually interesting or is it, as one of my CEO friends put it, merely an exercise of applied psychology? If the latter, is it possible to pursue intellectual endeavors outside your business niche (like reading books on race or philosophy), or does the requisite overwhelming obsession preclude such exploration?

7 comments on “Is Business Intellectually Stimulating? If Not, Does Overwhelming Focus Preclude Non-Business Exploration?
  • One way to look at this is that entrepreneurs get to choose what kind of business to start, and by that choice, decide their role in that business and how they structure their time. If you are going to start a Silicon-Valley style VC-funded tech startup, it’s possible you may need to focus on one narrow area all day. But other types of businesses may offer more flexibility. For instance, a more consulting-oriented business, or a business targeting an intellectually-stimulating market niche, may offer a wider array of ways to put your mind to use compared to a business where you’re huddled in the garage all day focusing on the gadget you’re developing.

    I also think it’s essential to be a well-rounded person because you need to get along with, sell to, and work with with all types of people, and you want to be able to connect with people, which is more difficult if all you can talk about is your industry niche.

  • I guess there’s always a danger that your thinking grows stale when focusing exclusively on your immediate environment, because the creative process depends on fresh and unfamiliar associations for solving problems.

    Like Einstein said, “problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

    btw., this is the first time I leave a comment here, although I’ve been reading your blog for probably a couple of months now.

  • This is a tough one. I believe that startup entrepreneurship is all-encompassing and, therefore, greatly limits the number of outside intellectual pursuits an entrepreneur can have. That may be more of an indication of my own mental capacity than it is a general rule though. Ideally, the more well-rounded a leader/manager is, the better they *should* be at their jobs. Outside intellectual pursuits can help make them more well-rounded and, perhaps even more importantly, pull them away from the focused thinking about what has to happen next in their day-to-day work – if just for a moment.

    All that said, I believe that many have the intellectual capacity to pursue intellectual endeavors outside their business niche, although not all take advantage of it. It’s not clear to me that this ability, though, is highly correlated with the success of such a person or the business they run.

  • Champion chess players in their prime spend 12+ hours each day analyzing games. Same story with any serious athlete, with diet, training, watching film of the opposition. Academics are no exception (think “a beautiful mind”). Exceptional artists… same story.

    Empirically, a lot of these guys are indeed emotionally unstable, or at least highly introverted individuals… think Nash in math or Fischer for chess.

    An economist would say that feeling inadequate/uncomfortable with the “real” world helps lower your opportunity cost for being obsessed with an abstract idea.

    A psychiatrist would say the driver is the feeling of being in control: the math model, chess board, start-up, basketball hoop – they are all more manageable than the real world. They provide the only safe refuge for a paranoid person such as Fishcer.

    Per your friend’s advice: hiring emotionally unstable people means you will get much higher variance employees, with a higher chance of getting a genius. I don’t think this is what most businesses are looking for 🙂

  • Practically, I feel as though one has to make time for business, and free time: time for intellectual exploration to balance success as an entrepreneur and as a well-knowledged individual.

    – Mari

  • While it’s important for an entrepreneur ( startup or expansionary ) to stay focussed, I don’t think it’s the singular criterion to be applied while screening and selecting a CEO for your business. Shutting yourself from the outside world with just one obsession, I think is extremely limiting in a sense. That limits your vision, it insulates you from the dynamics of a changing world and you are forced to become an introvert…none of these traits help a budding business and it’s leader has to be someone to whom a vision is all important, who is in touch with the world outside and who has to be a permissive personality to imbibe all that affects his community in which he chooses to build his business. The guy is supposed to get extraordinary things done by ordinary people and would you think a sulking scrooge would ever be able to do justice…? Na.

  • Tunnel vision is not a prerequisite for startup success. It’s true that many successful founders are workaholics, but this may simply be a reflection of the fact that the driven are more likely to start companies.

    There is no proof that given an equal population of entrepreneurs, the more single-minded will be more successful.

    A better question is what kind of life you are willing to lead. It’s better to establish a fixed mode of living, and then to optimize the other variables for business success, than to establish “success” as your goal, and then try to find a life within those constraints that will make you happy.

    Better to be happy and “unsuccessful” than unhappy and “successful.”

    Of course, for some people (the aforementioned tunnel vision entrepreneurs), success is the sole objective, and they assume that they will be unhappy if “unsuccessful.”

    I’ll leave it to the reader to decide for him or herself whether or not those tunnel vision entrepreneurs are correct or mistaken.

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