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The Neuroscience of Entrepreneurial Passion

I recently read an article about the acclaimed entrepreneur Wilson Harrell in which he talks about “entrepreneurial terror” – the uncertainty that entrepreneurs endure throughout (or most of) their careers. He described it as an emotion unlike any other.
I found it hard to comprehend that any person in their right mind would wilfully put themselves through something that is not, at least, also fun! If entrepreneurship is optional, what makes entrepreneurs put up with the uncertainty? Is there such a thing as an entrepreneur that also enjoys what he/she is doing?

So I decided to investigate for myself.

I researched interviews with 35 of South Africa’s top businessmen and women. They have all had a successful career at top-management level in one industry or another; from mining, automotive, agriculture, ICT, financial to clothing and retail. Strangely enough many of them educated in a total different science as the company they headed, were in.
A few characteristics that stood out where vision, teamwork, hard work and having a plan. Although it might sound familiar, there is one trait that I found particularly interesting: passion. So, how does neuroscience relate to passion?

In an article about the neurobiology of passion, John Hagel explains that there are two neurotransmitters that are, at least in part, responsible for this entrepreneurial passion – dopamine and oxytocin. Neurotransmitters are the communication chemicals of neurons.
Research has shown that dopamine is released in the following circumstances or has the following effects:

  • anticipation of rewards
  • alters the way we make risk/reward trade-offs by increasing our risk taking tendency and increases our willingness to take risks
  • stimulates exploratory/seeking behaviour and hence makes us more willing to embark on and remain committed to sustained initiatives that offer the expectation of rewards, even if the rewards are not immediate.

So dopamine provides the willingness for us to accept risks. This is what Oxytocin does:

  • released through touch and massage
  • reduces stress.
  • makes us more trusting, empathetic, and generous
  • oxytocin sets a ‘vicious cycle’ in motion – it is released through social and physical contact and in turn stimulates behaviors that tend to promote more social and physical contact
  • oxytocin is associated with unlearning while dopamine release is associated with learning while

They also work very well to complement each other: dopamine pushes us to focus on more distant goals; oxytocin rewards closeness. Dopamine drives attraction and focuses attention; oxytocin drives attachment, engaging attention; dopamine excites and stimulates; oxytocin has a calming effect, reducing stress hormones.
It is the entrepreneurial passion that keeps us FOCUSED on what we want to do, but the dopamine provides the endurance when times get tough. Interestingly, focus was also one of the key characteristics of the interviews. It short, dopamine provides the impulse to act.


Marketing Implications

The world is becoming increasingly like a single piece of ‘connectedness’. What happens where you are or halfway around the world doesn’t make a difference; you have just as much access to what your friends are doing, job opportunities, shows that are streamed live on the net etc.
If you are a marketer, only one concept should come to mind: social media. The thing about oxytocin is that it is also produced in online social interactions. The more you can encourage visitors to your site, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube Channel etc., the more trusting they will appear of your brand (and vice versa).
Your main goal with your brand should be to foster an unparalleled passion for it through providing frequent short gains. The greater the positive anticipation as a result of the dopamine, the more trust will be established, followed by more anticipation for reward ad infinitum…

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Werner van Zyl
Phone: +27 84 810 22 74
Fax: 086 604 8175