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The Entrepreneurial Brain: Bending Reality Against Conventional Wisdom

The thing about reality is that we do not live in it. We live in our minds, which is just a version of reality. No matter how objective someone is, their worldview will always be incomplete and partially distorted. This means that the line between clarity and deception, which we all want to believe is obvious, can sometimes be very blurry. Hence, genius and madness often dance with each other to the complex tune of the human mind. Entrepreneurs frequently see themselves in this dance, making the entrepreneurial path one of the toughest to follow.

In the PBS NOVA Series Your Brain, neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Heather Berlin, with the help of other experts, explores the sometimes-mischievous nature of our brain. Although the documentary is scientific and clinical in nature, I couldn’t help but see many connections between its findings and the way entrepreneurs often experience life.

Entrepreneurship is not merely about launching a business; it’s a journey into the mind, a deep dive into the unconscious, and an incarnation of the intriguing nature of reality. The entrepreneurial brain functions like a receptor and a creator simultaneously, in ways that often challenge the status quo, creating situations that are conventionally unsound but ultimately successful. Let’s explore this topic further via five key themes: vision; cognitive intelligence; emotional intelligence; the self vs the collective; and consciousness vs unconsciousness. Let’s get started.

1) Vision

The entrepreneurial mind sees and experiences reality differently—that includes the past, the present, and the future—leading to the identification of overlooked or undiscovered opportunities. So, what separates the entrepreneurial brain from the rest? It’s all about envisioning a world invisible to others.

Vision is the ability to see what can be, but still is not—sometimes against all odds. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is a stereotypical example. Bezos anticipated—and in so doing, willed into existence—a full transformation of retail commerce worldwide. His first step was just an online bookstore, which seemed small and unwise to many. Years later, the bookstore grew into an online mall of everything, albeit major financial losses, which now seemed not only unwise but reckless to many. Today, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer and second largest internet company—and very, very profitable. Part of the underlying dynamic behind Amazon’s iconic journey was succinctly put by Bezos himself, “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.”

Now, how does the human brain create a vision of what doesn’t exist? We can get a glimpse of the answer by learning how the human eye sees the physical world. In her documentary, Heather Berlin states that, “you can see detail in about one percent of your visual field. That’s because only a tiny portion of the world can be processed in detail by the retina. It feels like I’m seeing the whole world in 20/20 vision. [But] it’s almost all completely made up in your brain, based on assumptions and models of how the world works and just a tiny bit of high-quality visual information.” In other words, we create most of what we “see.”

Now, when entrepreneurs “see” the future (i.e., craft a vision), we know 100% of it is made-up. Not only that, we know an entrepreneur’s vision can only be built on assumptions of how the world works—a worldview—which adds a whole new layer of uncertainty. If the worldview is critically flawed, the vision will be as good as gibberish, which leads us to our first conclusion: Having a clear, sensible worldview is as important as having a clear, sensible vision of the future when it comes to the entrepreneurial journey. As entrepreneurs, we must not allow our brains to play tricks on us while simultaneously letting our brains play, wander, and dream. A delicate balance that is rarely successful.

2) Cognitive Intelligence

I define cognitive intelligence as the capacity to break down reality into its fundamental components and describe the patterns of interaction among them. This is how we unveil reality’s interconnectedness, dynamism, and cyclicality, allowing for a balanced understanding of the whole and its comprising parts. In other words, cognitive intelligence is the ability to understand the causal loops that make up reality. It is all about systems thinking.

Interestingly, the entrepreneurial mind uses cognitive intelligence differently from other types. Where most people see cause and effect, entrepreneurs see an opportunity to change the cause, tweak the effect, or completely change the cause-effect loop. Thus, as entrepreneurs engage in problem-solving, not only do they attempt to improve reality, they actually try to create brand-new realities that others will have to understand and adapt to.

The entrepreneurial brain has a proclivity to create new realities because it has an organic understanding of the fallibility of our own ideas about the world. No matter how much data and “proven” patters of causality there are, entrepreneurs tend to explore subtleties in such conventions that can be beneficial when trying to challenge the status quo. Heather Berlin states that, “as neurons process sensory signals, they create an edited version of reality, even on the most basic level.” To which neuroscience researcher Narayanan Kasthuri adds, “We're deciding to throw away 99% of the world. Almost at the very first moment, we are transforming reality into something we could use.” Ans this is where entrepreneurs thrive for better or for worse. Granted, it doesn’t always pan out successfully. In fact, most entrepreneurial endeavors fail. But when they succeed, we get to see examples of madness becoming world-creating genius.

An iconic example of cognitive intelligence in business is Steve Jobs. By creating a digital entertainment ecosystem native to Apple mobile devices (i.e., iPod, iPhone, and iPad), Jobs drastically altered how people consume content. Technology and business analysts usually hail the creation of the iPhone as the pivotal event that changed content consumption, but it was the deployment of iTunes and the App Store via the iPhone that really influenced user behavior and changed the entertainment business forever. Through his application of systems thinking, particularly in understanding the interconnectedness of technology, user experience, and content delivery, Jobs orchestrated a paradigm shift. He was able to bring music, film, and other digital content into the pockets of millions, showcasing the remarkable power of understanding complex patterns of causality in business and human behavior.

3) Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions through self-mastery; and understand the emotions of others through empathy. In so doing, we can establish relationships based on trust and shared goals. From there, we can inspire and leverage the collective’s cognitive intelligence toward realizing a common vision. Hence, emotional intelligence rises as the key to leadership, making the former the master orchestrator of most entrepreneurial endeavors as these tend to require sustained teamwork over a long period of time.

When discussing leadership and emotional intelligence in the context of entrepreneurship, we must pay special attention to two quintessential elements: the ego and risk-taking. Let’s address them jointly.

Our senses of identity (ego) and uncertainty (perception of risk) are distributed among almost 90 billion neurons. It is reasonable, then, to conclude that both are subject to neuronal representation, which means they are just constructs. That is why people experience identity and risk differently, and successful entrepreneurs do so in a way that allows for finetuning, reassessment, adjustment, and even disruption of both constructs as they strive to realize their vision.

When entrepreneurs are able to craft a healthy ego, it aids them in maintaining a strong belief in their ideas and capabilities so that they can compensate for the skepticism they face from others and even themselves. Yet they also are able to empathize with the concerns and ambitions of others in an effort to build bridges to enhance teamwork. This comprehensive approach to the self and the collective allows entrepreneurs to experience uncertainty not as the trigger of inevitable fear but as the gateway into the unknown reality they are trying to build.

Speaking at the 2017 EQ Summit in London, Jeremy Darroch, Group CEO of Sky, said, “If you create an environment where people want to go to interact, you sometimes build a kind of creative tension that emerges from different views. But if you show empathy, listen, and then convince your colleagues about how to get better results, then you start to profit from all of those differences.” From Darroch’s viewpoint, the Holy Grail of entrepreneurship, that is, seeking and realizing opportunities, is a collective endeavor catalyzed by emotional intelligence (i.e., ego management and empathy).

4) The Self Vs The Collective

Based on the previous section, we can conclude that entrepreneurship is a complex dance between the self and the collective. There usually is someone who creates the vision and leads the way, but ultimately, it is a collective effort involving many talented and committed people that brings the idea to fruition. In fact, it can be argued that even the entrepreneur’s original vision is also, in part, a reflection of the collective around them that fosters and helps articulate said vision.

Psychologist Mahzarin Banaji speaks about the collective nature of the self in the following terms: “I think most human beings like to believe that their mind is under their own control. If I want to, I can stand up right now. I can do that. And that gives me, I think, the false belief that everything I do has been chosen by me.” Berlin expands on this by stating, “Not only are there multiple parts of your brain influencing you, but there are things in the world around you that influence your brain, including other people.” Neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe elaborates even further, “How we act and who we are in our lives is hugely determined by the expectations of the people around us. The brain helps us be the most social species on the planet. A lot of our brains are devoted to understanding other people.” To this, neuroscientist Daniela Schiller adds, “Our brain doesn't operate in isolation. We constantly learn, take, compare to other brains.” In agreement, psychologist and brain scientist Luke Change concludes, “Our brains have evolved to be able to effortlessly reason about other people. And emotions, similarly, have evolved as ways that guide our behavior.” It makes sense, then, to consider that an entrepreneur’s desire to make a difference and the idea of how to do so are, to a high degree, determined by the people and circumstances around them prior, during, and after the entrepreneurial spark first ignited. Ego and empathy (at least in the very beginning) coexist at the core of the entrepreneurial seed.

5) Consciousness Vs Unconsciousness

Vision, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, and our self-vs-collective nature are only part of the entrepreneurial journey. In fact, they might just be the tip of the iceberg. There is a part of every entrepreneur’s journey that, just as every other major function of the human brain, has a sizable unconscious component.

The sense of authorship, control, and agency that comes from having a vision and making it a reality has a very complex brain dynamic, which has baffled neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. As research into the human brain advances, our unconscious is proven to be more and more influential in our decision-making—to the point that experts have started asking the question, how much are we really in control of what we do? Including entrepreneurs.

As Heather Berlin puts it, “Your brain is a meaning-making machine. And creating a sense of agency is one of the ways it makes meaning out of your daily life.” This sense of agency, which supports the ego, is further explained by psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, “There is no way in which I can operate without understanding what is happening and why I’m doing it. It’s the filling-in of the blanks that is necessary in some ways for survival, to give meaning, to make sense of the cause and effect of things.” To this, Kasthuri adds, “Perhaps we have that feeling of consciousness because it gives us a sense of agency. It allows us to pretend like we’re the ones making decisions and we’re the ones reaping the rewards or the failures of that particular decision.”

Most people feel uncomfortable with these questions for they do not want to feel they do not have control. Yet musicians and dancers have a different take. They tend to acknowledge the fact that letting go of conscious control can produce some of the best music and moves. Surgeon, neuroscientist, and musician Dr. Charles Limb states, “When you’re playing the blues, you have this kind of well-known musical structure, this template, and then you use that as a launchpad for improvisation, for innovation, and for new ideas.” It seems that when the human brain moves into creator mode, which is a modular aspect of entrepreneurship, the unconscious mind takes over.

Limb finishes by saying, “if you’re too self-conscious and you’re unable to relax and let go, you can’t do something like this [create great music]. When you start trying to [use] conscious control mechanisms, your performance goes down—you get worse. [For example,] free-throw shooters that are able to shoot 99% free throws, all of a sudden, when you tell them you’re going to get a million dollars if you make the next one […] Then all of a sudden, you inject conscious control over something that’s much better just left to its own subconsciousness.”

All this is not to say people are not accountable nor responsible for their actions, good or bad, including becoming an entrepreneur. This is to say that having the ability to tap into the reservoir of wisdom, imagination, talent, and confidence available in our unconscious is a key to entrepreneurial success.

Based on the foregoing, it is important to wonder how much conscious control chokes the entrepreneurial drive and vision. How many people inspired the vision? How many people are needed to make the vision a reality? These questions point to the idea that, in order for an entrepreneur to change reality for everyone else, the entrepreneur relies on the individual unconscious, the collective unconscious, and collective work.


Entrepreneurs are not mere business leaders; they are visionaries who reshape industries, challenge norms, and embrace uncertainty. Their unique drive and cognitive framework propel them to innovate and make a dent in reality as others see it. The human brain, as presented in the PBS NOVA Series “Your Brain,” serves as a testament to human ingenuity and complexity, whereby the entrepreneurial experience is proven to be much more than having a vision and the drive to realize it.

As we analyze the human brain, we see that so much of the entrepreneurial genius has thick and deep elements of unconscious stimuli and collective inspiration, as well as an absolute need for collective engagement in order to become a reality. Let’s use the following analogy: If you have your favorite meal for lunch, you could cling to the idea that you chose your favorite meal and made the decision to have it for lunch. But then, we should ask, did you choose to be hungry? The answer is an absolute no. Billions of years of evolution made you hungry, and that is completely out of your control. Then, we need to wonder who first cooked your favorite dish, and how many people had to eat it before you finally tried it and “chose” it as your favorite. Extrapolating these questions to entrepreneurship, where does your entrepreneurial hunger come from? How many people inspired you through positive or negative reinforcement? How many people are helping you make your vision a reality? And as you make your dream come true by changing how reality is experienced by others, it is paramount to ask yourself how much you have changed yourself to finally see the crack in your own concept of reality so you can squeeze through and shift it.

In the movie The Matrix, there is a scene where Neo is about to meet with The Oracle. He finds himself in a waiting area surrounded by other individuals, most of whom are children, all eager to discover if they might be ‘The One.’ Among them, Neo sees a young boy whose appearance is reminiscent of a monk. In his hand, the boy holds a spoon, and he bends it through sheer focus and intention. Neo pauses, filled with bewilderment. At that moment, the boy says, “Do not attempt to bend the spoon; that's beyond your reach. Instead, seek to grasp the truth... there is no spoon. Only then will you realize that it is not the spoon that bends; it is solely yourself.”

Do entrepreneurs bend reality, or do they bend themselves (i.e., points of view, emotions, ego, etc.) in a way that allows them to observe and experience reality outside conventional wisdom, thus achieving perspective and inspiration unattainable to most? Whether the entrepreneurial brain bends reality or bends itself, the irrefutable result is that, when successful, it creates realities that others must get onboard with in order to survive and thrive.

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