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Is entrepreneurship on the cards for your career? In this article Lauren shares how her atypical career path and approach as a business scientist helped her adopt an entrepreneurship mindset. Continue reading to find out how you can start taking action towards your dream career today.
Hear Lauren read this article on the Purpose Driven Podcast below.
One of the biggest barriers for people who are thinking about starting a business is their belief that the odds of success are low. In fact, according to Gallup, 66% of potential entrepreneurs are hesitant to start their own business because of this.
General advice for overcoming this hesitancy is for a "mindset shift" - or more specifically, we're told to adopt an entrepreneurship mindset.
But what does this actually mean?
To me an entrepreneurship mindset and a scientific mindset are one and the same. It's the reason I adopted "The Business Scientist" branding early on in my career transition from the media industry to a consultant and founder of my own business.
To explain more, I need to take a step back and explain a little about my career leading up to this point.
Business science involves the application of scientific principles and methodology to enterprise contexts in order to establish predictable patterns that can facilitate better decision making - Lauren Kress, 2019
I've always been pretty indecisive about my career and for a long time struggled with figuring out who I am in relation to the work I find myself doing. Our career development and workplace identity is indeed interesting and complex and worthy of it's own article, but for now, let me say that for my undergrad years and a large chunk of my adult life, I've asked myself, with all the existential angst I could muster, "what am I going to do with my life?"
There have just been so many things I've wanted to do (!) I've wanted to be a doctor, a graphic designer, a clinical psychologist, a research academic, an author, a counsellor, a writer, a carpenter, a musician, a high school teacher, an interviewer, a professional speaker, a salesperson ... the list goes on and on.
In first year of university I began my major in psychology whilst I also taking philosophy and biology subjects. There I discovered my love for big questions and systems biology. Pursuing these interests meant I also had to study math and statistics courses along with additional chemistry and biochemistry subjects.
But then I also really loved learning about the brain. So when it came time to consider my honours year research project I took another detour and landed on doing my honours in Neuroscience.
I made all of these decisions thinking on the one hand that I would most likely end up working in a laboratory and becoming a research academic. And on the other hand...I still had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn't until I got into the lab 3.5 years into my degree and began my year long research honours project on calcium homeostasis and the putative role of TRPC3 channels in mouse cochlear hair cells...that I realised laboratory science wasn't for me.
It was also around this time that I started blogging and writing weekly posts about the brain. These articles were about neuroscience in the context of more ordinary things that affect our day-to-day lives - things like love & attraction, decision making, cognitive biases and more.
I had also been working part-time as a medical receptionist and making extra cash on the side as a private tutor, a little side hustle I started when I was 14 years old.
Teaching, supporting patient care and writing were all energising activities I enjoyed and looked forward to. This contrasted heavily with the gloomy days I spent dissecting microscope and making up artificial perilymph solution.
The "planned" career path it appeared I was heading down was not suited to my personality or my skillset at all. Here I was an outgoing, often impatient, creative type who loved to help others and I'd landed myself a year long lab project. A project perfect for an introvert with great attention to detail and a desire for routine work. Diverted attention or missing a small sequential step in a long line of routine tasks could make or break an entire day of experiments. Experiments that seemed completely irrelevant to anything that was happening in the outside world.
And in all honesty, it was a pretty dark time in my life. As I graduated I felt that I'd just wasted 4.5 years studying a science degree that, in the end, got me no closer to furthering my career.
I got my first real taste of "failure".
The failure of wasted time, money, energy and resource, the failure that holds up a mirror to you and says "you're not good at this, or this, or this", the failure that says "you should have done better, you should have known better, you should have been better" the failure that calls into question your reason to exist and your value and worth as a human.
I believe it's these types of "failures" that many fear when they ask themselves whether or not they could start a business.
In my more recent years of study and self-reflection I've spent a lot more time learning about the brain and human behaviour that are truly of interest to me. The question that fascinates me most of all at this stage of my life is this:
One of the things I've found particularly interesting is how we choose to deal (or not deal) with negative emotions.
Perhaps this is of great interest to me in part because I've struggled so much with processing negative emotions myself.
In therapy, I learnt that in choosing to ignore and squash my negative emotions, I was also unable to experience the positive ones. I also learnt that by not feeling into my emotions, there was so much that I couldn't learn about myself.
All the most useful data about who I am, what I need and what matters to me doesn't come from my rational thinking brain - the one that had tried for so long to think it's way into the right career path and business. It comes from my intuitive emotional brain.
And the negative emotions? Negative feelings matter to me most of all. Whenever I feel in my body that something is not quite right, I sit with it and gently, gently I start to amplify that feeling, peeling back the layers to uncover what's underneath that emotional pain or discomfort.
As a friend, colleague, partner and fellow human being of planet earth, I believe it's important for me to hold a safe space for others to explore these feelings also. It makes both inner conflict within myself and external conflict with others a very different experience - one that is less anxiety-inducing and much more life-affirming.
So how do we unpack the feelings we get when we contemplate entrepreneurship? What is at the very heart of those feelings?
If you conducted a survey asking people who are hesitant about starting their own business what they were feeling, chances are they would say "I'm scared of failing". If you dug a little deeper still at the very heart of this, there will be some version of this sentiment:
We often talk about this fear in terms of "the imposter syndrome", this is where we feel like we are pretending to be someone we aren't because if people knew who we "really are" we would be inadequate.
This feeling is rife in our society. In fact as reported here in the Journal of Behavioural Science it's estimated that 70% of people will experience the imposter syndrome at least once in their lives.
Many of us as a result of this fear of failure and this feeling of being a soon-to-be-discovered "imposter" may rely on external validation and recognition from others to reassure us that we are in fact "good enough".
This need for reassurance and external validation isn't something we should be beating ourselves up about. As social creatures, our brains are wired this way.
Our brain dedicates energy to monitoring whether or not we are accepted by the group of people around us. Our survival depends on belonging which means we need to feel that we belong, we need to know that we're "ok" by the standards of those in our immediate vicinity.
Being seen by a particular group as "inadequate", "unusual", "atypical" "controversial" or "uncooperative" can mean exclusion from that group, and in a hunter-gatherer context, exclusion can mean isolation, starvation and death.
It's no wonder that shame and ridicule have been and continue to be powerful means of control. If you're interested in learning more about the social brain check out the short video from Sentis below:
One of the traps many people can fall into is to setup these "test of worth" experiments in our head. Subconsciously they may have a research question that goes something like this:
"If Jo says I did a good job, I am good enough but if Jo doesn't say anything it means I'm not good enough, I'm inadequate in my job and as a person."
At a rational level it is easy enough to quickly identify how illogical this is, and brush it off as silliness - something you and I would never worry about ourselves (surely not!).
But this stuff doesn't happen on a rational-level, it happens at an emotional and a neurochemical level.
And our cognitive biases, our past experiences, our values, our culture, our beliefs - all the things that go into shaping the way we view the world - doesn't provide us with very viable data.
If we believe "I'm not good enough" our brain is constantly scanning our environment in order to "see" whether or not this is true - and it's going to make venturing out on our own appear incredibly dangerous.
At school we can be externally validated when we get a good mark or receive good feedback from a teacher. Or if we don't get this, we may seek external validation elsewhere, perhaps in the opposite direction, being a "cool kid" who doesn't care about grades and likes to party.
At work we are externally validated when we do good work or make money for the business. If we don't get this, we may seek external validation elsewhere, we might change jobs or professions or focus on activities outside of work like hobbies or sports.
As an entrepreneur or a person who is preparing to take a brave step in their career, we need to change the game we're playing entirely. We need to recognise what is worth testing and what isn't. What requires experimentation and what must be taken as a given.
We can no longer subconsciously run these experiments in order to determine whether or not we're good enough. Instead we must take it as a given that we are a good enough. It is a priori knowledge, ie. we deduce this from theoretical reasoning and not from observation or experience.
You are good enough because you are a human being.
I am good enough because I am a human being.
She is good enough, he is good enough, they are good enough because all of them are human beings.
When we can accept this and understand that we are in fact, all good enough, that our value isn't something to be measured or tested, we stop worrying about failure as much, right?
Sure, we might wonder whether or not we'll be able to rise to the various challenges that lay ahead, but these are practical concerns with practical solutions.
But what we're no longer doing is tying our worth and value as a person to the success of a new business venture or career path.
Lauren Kress speaking at University of New South Wales' Careers In Science Festival (2019). Photo credit: Anna Kucera
If I could go back in time and have a chat with my 19-year-old self about that question - "What am I going do with my life?" - I would encourage them to ask themselves a better question.
In science and entrepreneurship we learn how to ask better questions. We learn how to ask questions that are going to help us acquire new information and build knowledge.
I think a much better question I could have asked myself throughout my twenties is this:
It took me a long time to arrive at this question, but once I did, it allowed me to consciously apply the scientific method to my career. I became more deliberate about gathering information, formulating a working hypothesis and running my next experiment.
I think many of us were led to believe that career is something we decide on for life, but our career isn't a set and forget thing - it is a lifelong journey. The decisions we make today are about taking the next step. For many of us, they are unlikely to lead to a career-for-life decision. And even if it seemingly is a career-for-life, it doesn't have to become a career for life. Transferring previously acquired skills to a new profession is commonly practiced in our society today.
And it's the same with starting a business. Starting your first business doesn't have to be a decision about a forever business. In fact it may completely change. Mine did!
A few months back during my keynote at UNSW's 2021 Careers in Science Festival, I asked STEM students and graduates the following question: What is the most powerful three-word-phrase we embrace as scientists?
What do you think?
For me it's this: "I don't know"
Contrary to the popular slogan that "science is the new god", the philosophy of modern day science is not an ideological one, but one that, as Yuval Noah Harari puts it in Sapiens, "...assumes that we don't know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge"
When we are brave enough to admit that we don't know something we can begin the discovery process to find out. It takes the pressure off offering up a reactive, invalid "answer" for the sake of saving face.
This acceptance of the unknown and willingness to admit ignorance is what facilitates exploration. It underpins the scientific mindset and the entrepreneurship mindset - in both we transform "I don't know" into:
"I don't know...yet"
I didn't join these dots when I first ventured out of a stable job at 26-years-old to rise to the challenge of entrepreneurship. At that time I kept hearing about this thing called "growth mindset" - I heard it was this way of being and thinking that sits at the top of Maslow hierarchy of needs as a person achieves self actualization.
What I did know was that the scientific framework was important to my business, my career and my life. And as I thought about it more I realised they were the same thing.
In science we don't talk about failure or success. We talk about running an experiment and learning from it.
1. A perspective is adjusted in accordance with the evidence
In the world we currently live in, we see a lot of leaders across the business and political landscape who are unwilling to change their worldview. Entrepreneur and visionary leaders who are willing to change their worldview gain a superpower. They see completely new ways of turning problems into opportunities for progress.
2. It's all hypotheses to be tested
In science we learn how to make a best guess and then test it. We're less worried about proving to others that we're right, less concerned about whether our test is a success or a failure, and more concerned about learning.
And because we understand that we're guessing, testing and learning we're also careful with how much we invest early-on.When my clients ask me to advise on something that I don't know the answer to I tell them I don't know and together we formulate a hypotheses. From there, we design a quick and cost-efficient way of running some initial experiments so that we can take our next step.
3. Learning fast & cheap is better than slow & expensive
The scientific method is the most powerful, efficient and effective tool we have for gaining valid and reliable knowledge. When we put care into how we design our experiments at the outset we are able to learn extremely quickly and it saves us a lot of money and time as a result.
If we were instead to spend time and energy building out an entire business offering on the grounds of our best guess, the cost of failure is extremely high. If instead, you assume that your guesswork is just that - guesswork, you can factor that into your business plan, and keep your time, cost and risk to a minimum.
In almost every growth marketing role I read today I see that "data-driven" buzzword. Job adverts read "We want a marketer who is data-driven", "We need a data-driven marketing strategy", "You must be a data-driven marketer".
It kind of reminds me of when I was growing up and I used to see all those ads for health & beauty products that were "all natural, chemical free". And I was like..."but everything in nature is made up of chemicals?"
Data, like chemicals, is everywhere. "Data" put simply, is "information" - there's no such thing as information free or data free. Every marketer is using information to make a decision, therefore they are "data-driven" but the real question is whether or not that information, that data, is the best data for them to be using.
An insights-driven approach requires us to translate data into insights that enable us to make reliable predictions and informed decisions. That's what we learn to do amazingly well in science, it enables us to draw insights from that information and make our best decision possible with the information that we have.
What would the world be like if every business leader, every board director, every politician embraced the scientific mindset - or indeed the entrepreneurship mindset - that enabled them to have the courage to say "I don't know yet"?
What do you think the world will be like if people had the confidence to say that? If our leaders had the confidence to say that?
There are so many important problems for us to solve in the world. If you need some inspiration, check out the UN's 17 sustainability development goals. It's a great starting place for discovering the types of meaningful problems that you can contribute to solving as an entrepreneur.
It turns out that studying science wasn't a waste of time at all for me, because studying science gave me the tools to explore problems and discover solutions in a systematic way.
Bottom Line: When you learn about a problem that you care about, that's when you find meaning. When you use your greatest strengths to help solve this problem, that's when you make the world a better place.
In the spirit of reconciliation I would acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. I pay my respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living and working on the land today - the land that always was and always will be, Aboriginal land.