All it takes to become an entrepreneur is a big idea and a million dollars – right? Len Schlesinger, president of Babson College and co-author of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, argues that’s a pernicious myth – and it may be harming your career. With lifetime employment long gone, every employee needs to take responsibility for their own career and develop an entrepreneurial mindset: “Entrepreneurship is a skill that enables people to effectively cope with the uncertainty and unknowability that exists in the modern workplace, and effectively take action.”
But if you believe starting a business – or simply being innovative within your current company – requires a huge amount of cash or a world-beating idea, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed. Instead, embrace the secret that successful entrepreneurs have discovered: “If you want to start an entrepreneurial activity, you don’t need a big idea,” says Schlesinger. “You just need something you want. You don’t have to wait for this magic to come to you in the shower; if you keep tinkering at it, something’s likely to happen.”
Literature about entrepreneurship is often part of the problem. “It engenders all this hero worship,” says Schlesinger. “You have these successful entrepreneurs…[who] hire a ghostwriter and rewrite their life – which is very dangerous, because it sends the wrong message…I have people come to me who say, ‘I read this magazine article, I read this entrepreneur’s book, I saw this video, and the only thing I came up with is I can’t do this because I don’t have a big idea.’”
The truth is, anyone can be entrepreneurial – and they probably should. “The reality,” says Schlesinger, “is we ought to be encouraging more and more people to take action – not develop stories that exclude people.”
So how can you embrace an entrepreneurial mindset? Here are four strategies Schlesinger advocates.
Just act. “The last thing I want to do is dis thinking, especially as the president of a college,” he jokes. But he recognizes its limitations. When a problem is clear and data is available that can help solve it, it only makes sense to use it. But sometimes – especially in situations of rapid change and innovation – information and precedent are lacking. “When prediction falls away, you have to play a different game,” he says. In those situations, Schlesinger argues it’s often “better to act and see what happens, rather than trying to amass all the potential data that might help with predictability.”
Focus on your strengths. It’s easy to bellyache because you don’t have a million dollars or connections to Wal-Mart’s international purchasing director. Get over it, says Schlesinger: “The vast majority of us are mere mortals who are going to get there with small steps, building local networks, learning from those steps and building as we go.” Instead, focus on your assets.“Tell me what you do have,” he says. “Who do you know? What education do you have? What have you read? Who are you connected to?”
Plan – but not too much. Of course it’s useful to think deeply about your ideas – but don’t buy in so much that you aren’t willing to make changes and improvements. “Before I start worrying about building a 40 page business plan loaded with nonsensical assumptions about a world we know nothing about, can we see if you can talk intelligently about these ideas, or find a potential customer or ally?” asks Schlesinger. “Let’s spend some time mucking around in the feasibility phase, just playing without the burden of these complex business plans, which tend to generate an unreasonably high level of commitment to less-than-high-quality ideas way too early in the process.”
Understand your organization. Want to make change inside your company – but suspect it won’t go over well with the brass? Schlesinger urges small pilots that gather knowledge, test assumptions, and gain favor by aligning with the organization’s priorities. “Can you figure out a small step you could take that is respectful of and responsive to your boss’ agenda and see what happens?” he asks. “You’re not as powerless as you think you are – but you have to be smart about it.”
What are your strategies for thinking like an entrepreneur?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on April 11, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.