Icarus Qualities: Who Is Most Vulnerable to the Passion Trap?

The story of Icarus flying too high for his own good serves as a stark reminder that certain human qualities can become liabilities if taken to extremes. Optimism, for example, is a typical entrepreneurial trait that improves performance, but only up to a point. In fact, moderately optimistic people have been shown to outperform extreme optimists on a wide range of tasks and assignments.14 This is true for a number entrepreneurial characteristics, qualities that can be amplified to un­healthy levels by unrestrained passion. I call them “Icarus qualities” because they are vital to startup flight and must be present at some level (remember, Icarus was warned about flying too low as well as too high), but when overdone, these qualities can cause founders to fly too close to the sun:

■ Confidence/Optimism. Successful entrepreneurs tend to be-

Lieve in a brighter future. They are not easily deterred by others’ negativism or criticism. However, at extreme levels, confidence begins to function as arrogance or blind certainty. The role of overconfidence in startup failure has been well- documented, leading Mathew Hayward and two collabora­tors to formulate a “hubris theory of entrepreneurship,” asserting that the high-risk world of startups attracts people who are overconfident by nature, and that this overconfi­dence, in turn, plays a key role in perpetuating high venture failure rates.15

■ Need for Achievement. Call it drive, ambition, or competitive­ness. Successful entrepreneurs desire to fly higher and higher and are unshakably committed to their cause. At extreme levels, this high level of drive can show up as a volatile, my - way-or-the-highway approach that alienates partners and customers alike.

■ Independence. Successful entrepreneurs are often willing, or even inclined, to strike out on their own. They can shoulder the pangs of loneliness that all startup founders experience. But extremely independent business owners can become stubborn and aloof, sealing themselves off from access to constructive feedback, resources, and other sources of help and support.

■ Creativity/Imagination. Many entrepreneurs are classic dreamers, full of ideas and aspirations. They see potential where others see nothing. They ingeniously create awe­inspiring products. Unfortunately, extremely imaginative founders can fall in love with ideas that other people don’t “get” or need. They lose touch with what matters most to others—to customers, team members, investors, etc.

■ Risk-Taking. Effective startup founders are skilled at evalu­ating and assuming calculated risk. At its extreme, a propen­sity for risk-taking drives entrepreneurs to take risks for the sheer excitement involved (much like gambling) or, in con-

Cert with too much optimism, to believe that their risk-taking is aligned with some greater destiny.

■ Follow-Through/Focus. This is a critical capability for early - stage businesses, where resources are usually scarce and dis­tractions abound. But a passion-trapped founder with single­minded focus can get stuck in a narrow tactical rut, stubbornly sticking to an outmoded game plan, while the startup ship takes on more and more water.

In Chapter Three, I will outline a full set of entrepreneurial char­acteristics that are conducive to startup success. At this point, I en­courage you to compare yourself against the above list and identify where your personality may be vulnerable to overheated enthusiasm. As you do so, consider this: Was Icarus a born risk-taker, wired to be impulsive and overconfident? Or was he swept up by remarkable events that might lead any person to want to cavort with the gods? After all, it’s not every day that a guy escapes from a lengthy captivity and finds himself flying like a bird. Put differently, was Icarus driven by an enduring trait or caught up in a temporary state?

These same questions apply to your own personality and your role as an entrepreneur. Even if you possess only moderate levels of a trait, you might experience, during the first heady days of a startup launch, temporary shifts in emotion or behavior that look and feel very much like an extreme form of that trait. If you suspect that you are “not yourself” during the adrenaline-crazed rush of the startup phase, you may be right. Whether trait - or state-driven, the above tendencies taken to ex­tremes will increase your odds of being trapped by your startup passion.


Resources and Readings

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