“Is That All There Is?” Why We Should (Must?) Broaden Our Definition of “Entrepreneurial Success” – by Robert A. Baron

building dollar sign

Image: Chi King, Creative Commons 2.0

In 1969, singer Peggy Lee had a hit song which posed the question above—and, sadly,  offered a somewhat discouraging answer: “Yes, that’s all there is…”, she sang, “…so let’s keep dancing, and have a ball…” . These words were directed at the nature of life, but perhaps it is now time for the field of entrepreneurship to ask the same question in more focused form: “Is wealth, and its attainment, all there is to entrepreneurship? Is that the main reason why energetic, creative people become entrepreneurs—to get rich?” .

Until recently, the answer offered by entrepreneurs and university professors alike was a simple :  “Yes—that’s really what it’s all about!”. That idea is reflected both in popular books about entrepreneurship by famous entrepreneurs, and in almost all entrepreneurship-related activities on university campuses.  Courses often frame entrepreneurship as the road to personal riches. Business plan competitions stress the importance of value-creation (read:  wealth-creation) as a key criterion for winning the sizeable prizes offered; invited speakers are generally successful entrepreneurs and are held up to students as models—heroes and heroines they should emulate.  The basic message, then, is this:  where entrepreneurs are concerned,   SUCCESS = WEALTH, period!

But Is Wealth Really “All There Is?” Perhaps Not…  

'An Idea may mean Wealth in your Wallet' poster

An Idea May Mean Wealth In Your Wallet^ – NARA – 534155 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one sense, this emphasis on wealth as the criterion for success is fully appropriate, after all,  wealth-generation  is one of the prime goals of entrepreneurial activity.  But is this the only goal or the one that matters most? Recently—very recently—this question has begun to filter into our collective consciousness.  And the answer that is emerging goes something like this: Wealth is indeed important and can be wonderful—it is the basis for entrepreneurs’ famous generosity/philanthropy… But it is definitely not all there is to entrepreneurship”. In fact, the more closely we examine this question, the more obvious it becomes that individuals choose to become entrepreneurs for many reasons, and wealth is merely one of them—and, often, not the most important one.

But if Not Wealth, then What Else? What Do Entrepreneurs Really Seek?

If a quest for personal wealth is not the key motivator for entrepreneurs, then we must ask:  “What is?”. And the answer now emerging involves such goals as attaining autonomy, independence (i.e., being their own boss), doing meaningful work, and—in essence—attaining personal growth and fulfillment.  Many entrepreneurs are “up front” about this, explaining that they do not want to spend their lives following orders from bosses they don’t necessarily respect, or working on tasks they perceive to be unimportant or even totally meaningless.  In essence, then, many become entrepreneurs because they are seeking their  “dream job” or “dream career”—one that will give them much more than a large paycheck (although that is just fine too!).  So, what is this “extra” that they seek?  Please read on for the answer currently emerging…

The Short Answer:  Entrepreneurs are Engaged in a Quest for  Happiness and Fulfillment

Meaningful work; autonomy;  personal growth and fulfillment—these are very varied motives for launching a new company.  But in a sense, they all reflect a common theme:   quest for personal happiness (known, in a vast body of research, as subjective well-being).  What entrepreneurs are seeking, then, is what other people, too desire—a high (or at least higher) level of satisfaction with their lives—both global (i.e., overall life satisfaction), and satisfaction in specific life domains (e.g., work, family, career). Such well-being springs from many different sources, including close social ties with friends and family, good health, career success,  but overall, work seems to play a very important role.  In fact, a key source of life satisfaction involves establishing goals and then achieving, or simply making progress toward, them. But now, get ready for a surprise:  what’s missing from this list of sources of personal happiness—a list based on decades of research—is—personal income or wealth!  In fact, around the world, in many different cultures, the correlation between wealth and happiness is very, very low.  As a result, people in relatively poor countries often report higher subjective well-being—greater personal happiness—than those in rich ones.  For instance, Japan ranks 14th in Gross Domestic Product (a useful measure of a nation’s wealth), but 50th in personal happiness;  Mexico, in contrast, ranks 39th in personal income, but 22nd in happiness. The United States ranks 1st in GDP, but is only 19th in personal happiness. Apparently, there is a positive link between wealth and happiness, but only at relatively low levels of income;  once the necessities of life are attained, additional wealth does not automatically or necessarily generate greater happiness.

The Two Faces of Entrepreneurial Success

So, to return to our initial question:  “What is entrepreneurial success?”.  Given the facts and findings mentioned above, it seems crucial that we broaden our definition to include not simply financial success, but also personal fulfillment, growth and happiness.  Unless these are part of our definition of entrepreneurial success, we will, I fear, be studying only a dim reflection of the true entrepreneurial spirit—a spirit that seeks not merely wealth, but many other goals and sources of satisfaction, too.  Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt – not an entrepreneur himself, but eminently insightful nonetheless – put it best when he remarked:  Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”  Or, as I put it myself in my latest book, Enhancing Entrepreneurial Excellence, entrepreneurs seek not simply or primarily personal wealth, but rather the satisfaction of making the possible (their ideas, creativity, and vision), real.

Robert BaronRobert A. Baron is the Spears Professor of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University. He has held faculty appointments at RPI, Purdue, the Universities of Minnesota, Texas, South Carolina, Washington, Princeton University, and Oxford University. He served as a Program Director at NSF (1979-1981), and was appointed as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow by the French Ministry of Research (2001-2002; Toulouse). He holds three U.S. patents and was founder and CEO of IEP, Inc. (1993-2000). Baron’s current interests focus on the role of cognitive and social factors in entrepreneurship. He has published 130 articles, 35 chapters, and 47 books;  he serves on the boards of AMJ, JBV, and JOM, and is an Associate Editor for SEJ. 

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