What is an entrepreneur? I’ve had a little while to think about the question, alone in my motorcycle helmet, riding through foreign lands, new sights, sounds and smells all around me. Am I an entrepreneur? It’s been suggested to me that I am. I’d never looked at it that way before. I certainly never used to think so. I would look at people who started their own business and marvel at their guts, their willingness to go it alone and take the risk. To have the knowledge and self-belief to be able to do that, to lack fear and forge your own path must be a heady feeling. It never occurred to me that I was confusing the chicken with the egg; that it was the characteristics, and not the starting of a business, that were the defining features of enterprising spirit.
In reality, my last 15 years of academic research in Neuroscience have endowed me well with an enterprising spirit. Breaking new ground, pushing back the boundaries of knowledge, meeting and overcoming challenges to transform my ideas into reality. And of course resilience, bucket loads of resilience. I just never stopped to think about it that way. All my mental resources were dedicated to the experimental problems. Everyone around me had more-or-less the same attributes and skills, often in far greater quantity than I did and years in academia had led to a battering of my confidence. I was only muddling through the tricky ladder of academia as best I could, I thought.
I love science, I was and still am intensely curious about the world and the brain is the ultimate problem for me. This passion set me up well for a career in science. But what I was woefully unaware of to survive in science was that I would need to be really good at failure. Because there’s a lot of failure. It’s a numbers game. Grants, papers, experiments, job applications; all will fail – often many times – before they succeed. And unless you can find a way to endure those many other failures, to turn them into something positive and move on, you’ll never get to the success. Eventually, I learned to see it as an iterative process, with each failure you learn a little, corrections are made and the venture improves. But this knowledge is hard-won, it’s a slow road and it still knocked my confidence even with this knowledge.
I think partly this was thanks to my educational experience. A straight-A student, I had thoroughly bought into the belief system that success was good and failure was bad. That work in equalled result out and if I hadn’t succeeded then I hadn’t worked hard enough. What a shock it was to discover my career played by completely different rules. I adapted my behaviour but my mind was less flexible and eventually I wore down and burnt out.
Around this time my marriage broke down and I hit rock bottom. Finally, life had given me a strong enough lesson on how valuable ‘failure’ is that I had to heed it. It is a lesson I will always be grateful for. Without this crash I would likely still be muddling along on a path that was not fulfilling me adequately. Critically, I acquired the humility to know when to ask for help, to allow myself to be vulnerable, which led to one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I will always count myself blessed that my call for help was answered by a person who was equipped to communicate in a way that my wounded self could hear. She taught me a great many things (in a totally non-academic way I would add), guiding me into the way of listening to both my heart and my head. She gave me a sense of who I was as she graciously allowed me to see myself through her eyes. Absolutely key was the sense of security of character she worked so hard with me to bring. This allowed me to loosen the frightened stranglehold I had on life and surrender a little to its randomness, responding to what it brought.
In that surrender lies spirituality – and I use this word in a non-religious sense although it is part of religion too. There is little doubt in my mind that such spirituality is being eroded in the modern world and it is to our extreme detriment. That surrender to that which cannot be controlled or predicted is an absolutely vital element of entrepreneurial spirit, it is where creativity, anti-fragility (c.f. Naseem Nicholas Taleb), love and all else that is intangible, abstract and awe-inspiring in the human condition resides. For me, this surrendering of our spirit is a vital, oft overlooked aspect of enterprise. Entrepreneurs understand when to surrender to randomness and procrastinate to see what new opportunity the world will offer and when to push things forward themselves.
And so, after a long rebuild of my life, I took the decision to follow a dream: a motorcycle journey that would take me and my new partner half way around the world. It seemed reckless at first but as I weighed up what I valued against what it would bring versus what my current life offered it became clear to me that the only recklessness lay in not seizing the opportunity to live my life.
As I write this from Poland, a month into our journey, I reflect on the question again. Am I an entrepreneur? I had little idea of how to organise a long term motorcycle adventure. It was so far outside the life I’d known. I set an intention to be flexible and responsive, not fixed and reactive. And I applied the skills I had. To my surprise they were highly applicable to my new project. I broke problems down into manageable pieces and solved each bit in isolation. I fought my anxiety daily, firm in my conviction that what I was doing was right. By stressing the system, I learned the different flavours of fear and anxiety – that which protects and that which hinders. I learnt which to heed.
Since we embarked we have faced every mundane difficulty that comes from living a different life outside the system. And all this in the worst weather that Europe has seen in years. It’s been a baptism of fire…or rather water. It’s not easy and when asked if I’m enjoying myself I hesitate. Enjoyment is such a trite word to describe what this is to me. And it’s not enjoyable for a lot of the time. It’s effortful always, but I don’t begrudge this. It’s worthwhile because if you don’t spend it you won’t eat or sleep. This way of life feels healthy, fulfilling and wholesome. I’m content in a way that I’ve never known. I sit writing this in the comfort of a friend’s house and even after this short time, there is a part of me that yearns to be camping again, in the middle of nature, with only my next meal to worry about, surrounded by unknown and uncertainty. Each challenge met and overcome is a success, each failure is only a learning experience that brings you closer to another success. There is no time for beating yourself up about set-backs. As we head further east, we will gradually become more and more out of our depth, in Poland I have none of the language, in Ukraine, I will not even have an alphabet. Further on into the middle-east it becomes more and more unknown. Every day brings novelty and a continual flow of challenges. It’s impossible to plan for. It demands surrender to a vulnerable and humble state.
One day I’d like to build my science back into this new life of ours. I have a dream of developing an education program that integrates what I’ve learned from life’s lessons. I believe current educational models are more limiting than they are empowering, both in terms of limiting productivity and health. They’re no longer equipping us for the demands of our lifestyle which is evolving faster than our biology. We need radical shifts in thinking to adapt healthily to this brave new technology-driven world. This journey is an open-minded exploration of the world in the context of this idea. We will see what arises from it. I’m curious and excited.
So, in a nutshell, what is an entrepreneur? In the circle I now inhabit, it has a different word: adventurer. It’s not about what you do but how you do it. It’s a mind-set. An embracing, open-minded, curious and humble mind-set. It starts with being willing to rebel a bit, think differently, put yourself outside the system. It’s about meeting challenges, staying open, identifying problems and wanting to solve them. It’s about acceptance and patience and recognising that which cannot be changed, applying your energy wisely and letting go of what doesn’t serve you or your endeavour. It’s about failure and surrender as much as it is success and energy. It’s about balance. Ultimately, for me, it’s not about getting stuff done at all, it’s about fulfilling your responsibility to yourself to know, take care of and be kind to yourself. If you cultivate a healthy mind, a healthy outlook then the rest follows. And then the fun begins and great things happen.
Dr Katie Jennings is a Scientific research consultant & lecturer, who studied and worked at the University of Oxford. She is currently on a 1 year sabbatical, travelling from the UK to New Zealand on a motorcycle. You can read more of her adventures at Trails to the Forgotten
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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