Prof. connects entrepreneurship to impulsivity

By EMMA ROALSVIG | March 16, 2017


COURTESY OF SAMANTHA SETO Wiklund studies the links between impulsivity and entrepreneurship.

The Institute Seminar Series hosted Johan Wiklund to present his conceptual paper on the connections between impulsivity in mental health and individual entrepreneurial action on Thursday, March 9.

Wiklund is a professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University. This talk was part of the Institute Seminar Series, co-sponsored by the Carey Business School and the Hopkins history department.

Five years ago, Wiklund was diagnosed with a mental disorder, and he started reading the academic literature surrounding his condition.

“It was a bit of a big pill to swallow, but at the same time I thought, ‘I’m a reasonably successful guy; I’ve been married for 30 years; I have friends; I got a good career,’” Wiklund said. “And so, there’s got to be something about it that’s not only negative, because it’s part of who I am.”

Wiklund then expanded his research from the academic literature of psychology to include popular literature, where he found mentions of the potential strengths of these conditions, including the ‘dyslexic or ADHD advantage.’

Curious, and lacking any formal hypothesis, he interviewed 25 entrepreneurs that had different diagnoses: ADHD, autism, dyslexia or other additional diagnoses that include impulsivity.

In his paper, Wiklund reviews the literature on impulsivity and entrepreneurial action. He attempts to forge the two fields together to see where there could be connections.

“We build on this idea that there are four dimensions to impulsivity: urgency, lack of premeditation, lack of perseverance and sensation seeking,” he said. “Then we look at how those dimensions play out in the entrepreneurial action process.”

Wiklund’s research shows that the probability of starting a business with those who have the diagnosis of an impulsive mental disorder is high, but whether they perform better or not in business is still unknown.

He also argued that working on a team can often be difficult for these individuals. They tend to have fewer social relationships, since it is more of a challenge to cultivate them, but these relationships tend to be stronger.

“If you’re high in impulsivity, it can be hard for people to work with you,” Wiklund said.

Wiklund randomly sampled many individuals in the U.S. and found that more than half started businesses by themselves. Half of those who did not do it alone founded businesses with their spouse.

“Just about everybody has a spouse that serves that purpose of keeping them in line and making sure they’re not too impulsive and go overboard with 10 different ideas at the same time,” he said.

Wiklund also talked about the effects on medication for these individuals. Fifteen of the people he interviewed had ADHD and almost all of them took medication.

“Often they take medication when they need to talk to customers but not when they need to generate ideas, depending on their work tasks,” Wiklund said.

Wiklund then opened the event up to a scholarly discussion on his paper concerning impulsivity in mental disorders and its link to entrepreneurship.

Phil Phan, a professor of Management and Organization at the Carey Business School, works in the technology of entrepreneurship and the pathology of the brain among serial entrepreneurs and expressed interest in the complexities of defining impulsivity.

“The search for ideas or the notion that an idea could have some life in the form of a commercial value might be impulsive, or it could come from insight, given long experience,” Phan said. “If you look at the ones who were successful, you can see there were a series of deliberate decisions that were made along the way.”

Wiklund replied that impulsivity and intuition are closely related.

“Intuition is impulsivity gone right,” Wiklund said.

These dimensions of impulsivity are largely related to uncertainty. Many of the entrepreneurs Wiklund interviewed felt self-employment suited them personally and was worth the risk of failing many times before becoming successful.

Stephen Adams, professor of management at Salisbury University, asked about the potential for therapeutic entrepreneurship to offer millions of people a different lifestyle.

“What would this person do, if they were not doing this?” Wiklund said.

“If they weren’t an entrepreneur, they’d probably be a Wall Street trader, or in jail” Phan said.

Even successful entrepreneurs often emphasize that they were lucky and just intuitively recognized the opportunity. Wiklund’s interviewees stressed the fact that they were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

For Wiklund’s future research, he has reached out to other entrepreneurs to find and compare individuals with high and low impulsivity and see the outcomes of the data. He plans to look for patterns in the kinds of entrepreneurs with these mental disorders and see how they approach their businesses.

He also plans to do research with innovators in a corporate environment and learn about how this could impose certain constraints on their impulsivity and leadership.

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