The Antifragile Entrepreneurial Mindset: Learning & Personal Growth
May 5, 2020

by Chris Keshian MBA ’22, MIT delta v Program Manager

The Martin Trust Center recently presented an 8-part “Antifragile Speaker Series” in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This is the second in a series of blog posts that are meant to shed some light on what it means to be antifragile, and why it so important for entrepreneurs.

After an early entrepreneurial setback at age 25, I had to make a decision to either stay in the entrepreneurial ring or get a stable job. I had a solid idea that I wanted to pursue and I had done the necessary primary market research to validate it. My reticence to jump back in revolved around the fear of failure and the effort associated with the venture, with no guarantee of success.

After deliberating for some time, I realized that in order to justify my decision to start another company, I had to shift my idea of success as such:

Success ≠ A Financial Payout; Success = The Potential for a Financial Payout + Personal Growth

In decision theory, one technique for assessment of options involves creating a branching decision tree and calculating the expected value of each outcome based on the probability of certain events and the payoff provided by those events. Ultimately the rational decision is the one with the highest expected value.

If you look at a decision about whether or not to start a company, the expected value calculation may be very low, since the probability of success is also generally very low. Based solely on an expected value calculation, it often does not make rational sense to start a company.

If, however, you expand your definition of a payoff beyond just financial gain, the prospect of starting a venture seems more attractive. Looking back at my first company, despite the fact that I walked away with nothing, I realized that I had grown immensely over the course of that two-year period. I would say I experienced 5+ years of personal and professional growth through tough lessons during that time. I moved an idea from my mind into the world while pulling on myriad faculties and growing in key areas: persuasion, leadership, organization, creative problem solving, teamwork, negotiation, conflict resolution, and more.

The lessons from this time period are deeply embedded in my mind because of the gravity that my choices had in the moment. Because the decisions that I made, the actions I was taking, and the things I needed to accomplish had critical implications for my company, I was deeply engaged in the process. This “skin in the game” focus amplified these lessons and ingrained them more deeply in my mind.

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck refers to this reorientation toward personal growth as “cultivating a growth mindset.” She says that assuming a growth mindset permeates every part of our lives, influencing our self-awareness, self-esteem, creativity, ability to face challenges, resilience to setbacks, levels of depression, and tendency to stereotype.

“A growth mindset comes from the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. Yes, people differ greatly – in aptitude, talents, interests, or temperaments – but everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

In order to reorient my primary motivating factor toward growth, I resurfaced some neuroscience research I had engaged with during college.

Humans have engrained neurological reward pathways that propel our survival. Two of the neurotransmitters that modulate these pathways are norepinephrine and dopamine. When we exert effort and strive toward a goal that we deem desirable, our brains release norepinephrine.

  • Norepinephrine’s purpose is to mobilize the brain and body for action. It controls our “fight or flight” response. Interestingly it is also the neurotransmitter that is targeted by Adderall and other ADHD medications.
  • Dopamine is accepted as the main chemical of pleasure and plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. The anticipation of reward increases the level of dopamine in the brain. Our brains release dopamine when we eat dark chocolate, have sex, or engage in any other behavior we deem pleasurable.

These two neurotransmitters work together to motivate and propel human action. First, as we anticipate the payoff (i.e., financial gain), dopamine is released in our brains. If we achieve our goal, then we get a huge surge of dopamine levels. Motivated by this neurochemical payoff, we marshal our resources and exert effort as we work toward this goal. During this effort-exerting process, norepinephrine is released in the brain, which further helps to mobilize our action. However, after a sufficient amount of time has passed in which we have not achieved our goal and we have not experienced the dopamine release associated with that success, our brains trigger a quitting response.

So the key question for me became: how to tie the dopamine response to the reward of learning and growth along the entrepreneurial road, rather than to the financial payoff at the end of the road. One strategy I implemented was to review my week and identify key learning lessons. I would ask myself the following three questions:

  • What did I learn this week?
  • Where did I fail this week and why?
  • Where did I succeed this week and why?

After recording the answers to these questions, I would reward myself with something like a nice meal or a movie to trigger a small dopamine release. This process more tightly bound the dopamine release (reward) to the act of reflecting and learning (personal growth).

Through this process of reflecting, recording, and rewarding myself, I began to associate success and achievement with the process of growth. This had the added benefit of rejuvenating my effort reserves each week, which allowed me to persevere with projects much longer than I would have previously.

Cultivating a growth mindset can also be expanded to learning lessons from other people’s life experiences, through stories and biographies. Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert,” wrote a book called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, in which he describes a wildly non-linear path filled with the lessons he learned about keeping himself motivated, healthy, and happy while racking up a number of failures that ultimately led to his success. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in exploring this topic further.

I also recommend the following biographies:

  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
  • Poor Charlie’s Almanack
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
  • Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
  • The Secret Life of Salvador Dali
  • Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger
  • The Wisdom Of The Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life.

This is the second in a series of five posts. Read the others here: