Even an economy that embraces entrepreneurship, like the U.S., dampens the profession by wrapping it in destructive myths.
Such myths, entertaining as they are, are always exclusionary. They scare people away from their best shot at freedom. Here are the worst of these myths:
Entrepreneurs are strange and eccentric people. This is the junkie theory of entrepreneurship. You know, you can't be a great jazz musician like Charlie Parker unless you're a heroin addict too. Sure, some great entrepreneurs, like Larry Ellison or Bill Gates, are pretty strange guys. But they are successful in spite of their oddness, not because of it. Most of the thousands of entrepreneurs I've met are regular folks, with families and mortgages and favorite football teams.
Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. On the contrary, in their own minds, entrepreneurs are the most risk-aversive people they know. For them, the safest path is take charge of their own lives, to construct their own world, and not be at the mercy of anyone else. For entrepreneurs, having a regular job, where you can be laid-off at a moment's notice, is the riskiest imaginable existence.
Entrepreneurs are good businesspeople. Actually, most entrepreneurs I know are lousy at business. That's why most of them are kicked out of their own companies after a few years. That's also why we celebrate the few that actually show some business aptitude. But it doesn't matter, because at the birth of a new company, business acumen is secondary. What really counts is courage and character — and that can't be taught in business school.
Entrepreneurs are brilliant and versatile. No, the director of research and development is the genius. The PR director is the Renaissance Man. By comparison, entrepreneurs are merely quite bright. They are, however, also incredibly single-minded.
Entrepreneurs are born, not made. That's the biggest myth of all. In my experience, only about a third of all entrepreneurs might be called genetic entrepreneurs. These men and women were either born that way — the kind of kids who sold baby food out of their perambulators; or were so scarred by childhood experiences that they are driven to control every part of their adult lives. These are the folks about whom the myths of eccentricity were devised.
Another third might be called inevitable entrepreneurs. These are individuals who may spend a decade or two in traditional jobs, only to discover one day that they need to be free. Finally, there are the conditional entrepreneurs, men and women who become entrepreneurs, not out of any desire, but because it is the next logical step in their careers.
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com. And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.