I often say that starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down. It’s a vivid metaphor that contains a lot of truths. First, you’ll need courage and optimism. You have to believe you can pull it off. Next, you’ll need ingenuity. Assembling a plane takes talent and skill, even under calm circumstances. In the chaotic rush of a death-defying plunge, you need agility. You need to react quickly. You need to be calm under pressure. You need to find the plunge exhilarating.
And then there are the stakes. If you don’t assemble the plane in time, you crash. In real-world terms, you run out of money. This is why speed matters. Once you jump off the cliff, the ground comes at you fast. It’s why, in almost every case, a slow-moving startup is dead. That’s part of what makes entrepreneurship so grueling — because the default outcome until you get the whole plane running is death. Not just for you but also everyone you persuaded to jump with you.
So what does it take to succeed in these entrepreneurial leaps of faith? The answer is at once simple and infinitely complex: You need an entrepreneurial mindset.
And yes, it can be cultivated.
This is the one universal thing I’ve learned as a cofounder of LinkedIn, a key early hire at PayPal, as an investor, and in four years of interviews for the podcast Masters of Scale. In all these years, I can assure you: No two founders are the same. There’s no Silicon Valley factory where entrepreneurs are issued a hoodie, a can of Monster Energy, and a CS degree from Stanford, and are told, “Go forth and found.” Not every founder is young, not every founder comes from tech, not every founder graduates from an impressive university. (Some, like Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates, never graduate at all.) Also, not every founder has the same skills, experiences, or talents.
But mindset? That truly unites the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. They share a way of looking at the world and responding to it that’s essentially optimistic and action-oriented. A mindset that’s generative and resilient and often runs counter to the lessons we learn in school.
In fact, there’s an entire suite of entrepreneurial mindsets: a bias to action; a comfort with chaos; a capacity for quick decisions; grit; optimism; a steady supply of plan B’s; and more. Do you need to master them all? No, that’s impossible. Entrepreneurs have these mindsets in different combinations and proportions. Some may have come more naturally. Others have to be cultivated. The key is recognizing where your strengths are, and where you must learn and adapt.
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For example, you might be inherently optimistic and comfortable in chaos — but less confident making quick decisions. You might have impeccable timing and an unstoppable bias to action — but lack the capacity to play to others’ strengths. You may have a natural instinct on escaping competition — but less certainty on how to develop a winning company culture.
All of that is a good starting point. Don’t stop there! Your missing mindsets can be cultivated through intentional daily practice.
Dr. Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on the growth mindset has shown this. She’s a psychologist who teaches at Stanford University, and her research on growth mindset has captivated a generation of educators in America. Her key insight is this: A growth mindset allows you to see each setback as an opportunity for learning and, well, growth. Difficulty must be reframed as a challenge, and initial failures become a “not yet.”
Mindset work is being taught in elementary schools across the U.S. now, and it’s raising test scores. But mindset work isn’t just for kids. So how do you cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset? Here’s what matters:
1. You have to learn and unlearn at the same time. Entrepreneurial mindsets — for example, making quick decisions or letting fires burn — often run directly counter to what we’re taught in school.
2. Learn through story and not just theory. Most people learn best through the experiences of other entrepreneurs. Narratives make the theory stick.
3. Adopt a daily habit to reinforce a new mindset. It’s important to listen, read, and write. But it’s not enough. You have to act on what you’ve learned to live a new mindset.
There are many ways to cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets, from books to courses to peer groups with other founders. Technology has an important role to play here, too, in helping us build the daily habits that create mind shifts. (And frankly, I’m now offering this service myself. In collaboration with the team at Masters of Scale, I just released an app that’s based around a 10-minute daily practice, to help you cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset. Of course, I’d love you to give it a try. It’s called Masters of Scale Courses.)
In my experience, entrepreneurs need to be reminded to take time for anything that seems self-focused. As a founder and a leader, you throw all your energy into problems external to you: your product. Your market. Your team and your funding. But I can’t speak highly enough of the practice of cultivating your own mindset. It’s the most important tool you can bring on your quest to build and scale your business.
Read also: 11 Secrets for Growing Your Business Quickly
Not everyone is born with Sir Richard Branson’s bias to action or Steve Jobs’ power to persuade or Sara Blakely’s unsinkable resilience. But every entrepreneur has a brain that’s built for infinite possibility. They can cultivate the mindset they need to succeed and then refine it as endlessly as they refine their business.
Consider it a vital investment. The success or failure of your journey, at many points along the way, will rest upon how you think.