Opportunity Waits for No One… Here's What to Do When Being Impulsive Backfires

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Any superhero or Star Wars movie makes it clear: You can’t have the hero without the villain, or the dark without the light. It’s a concept any four-year-old can grasp—good and bad go together.

That’s true for real people too. And yet nobody likes to admit weakness.

Entrepreneurs least of all.

But emerging research reveals that many entrepreneurs are “killing it” with a double-edged sword—the traits that help them succeed (motivation, ambition, urgency) are the same ones that make them vulnerable to mental distress (overwork, self-criticism, frustration) and can hobble their business.

Michael Freeman, M.D., is a psychologist and entrepreneur at UC San Diego. His research suggests that mental health symptoms are not only more common among entrepreneurs but also may be key to their success.  

Still, each trait must be taken as a whole—you can’t simply pick and choose the parts you like. Just like in the movies, you can’t just ignore the bad and hope it goes away, at least not without seriously disturbing the force.

But learning to manage the bad is simple—all it takes is a little pivot.

That’s what this series is about: examining the traits that can be strengths and weaknesses, and offering you the expert-backed tools you need to make those weaknesses work for you and your ambition.

Your guide to improvement starts here.


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THE POWER: Opportunity won’t wait, and your take-action attitude means you won’t miss it.

When you’re impulsive, you take decisive action, fast. You don’t overanalyze, you don’t hesitate. You’re a doer, not a thinker—a leaper without much looking.

In school, you wouldn’t stay seated, you talked more than you paid attention, and on your way home you pilfered candy from the drug store.

Now you spend money freely without thinking. You run yellow lights, and jump through subway doors as they close, not wanting to wait for the next train.

You’re impulsive, says Freeman. You act on instinct. Not only do you never hit the brakes—you’re not even equipped with them. That can be a safety risk, but it can also help you win.

“The basic business model of the human species is hunter-gatherer, nomad-forager,” says Freeman. “The benefit of impulsivity is quick reflex. Things happen very fast. They happen so fast that you don’t have time to think about it.

“You hear a rustle in the bushes, and you turn and shoot without thinking. Because of that you get the rabbit, and you’ll be able to feed your family.” On the other hand, if that had been Bob in those bushes, you would have had some explaining to do.

When venture capitalist Robert Siegel and his colleagues looked back at all their successful deals over nearly a decade, they found that one of the attributes that was consistent among all of them was impatience.

“We want somebody with the desire to build something quickly,” says Siegel, an entrepreneurial expert at Stanford School of Business. “In our vernacular, you want somebody who’s a little bit broken but not a lot broken.”

Fact is, only a minority of entrepreneurs succeed; the odds are against them. But they have to be willing to go for it anyway.

“It’s kind of like Han Solo flying through the asteroid field,” says Siegel, “and he looks at C3PO and says ‘Never tell me the odds.’ You want a little bit of that.” And we’re back to movies.

Impulsivity and intuition can look similar—if the decision turns out to be a bad one, we call it impulsive. But if it’s good, we call it intuitive.

Johan Wiklund of Syracuse University has found that impulsive mental disorder is high among people who start businesses. What’s more, he’s argued that by examining impulsivity we may learn more about intuition, even generalizing it to other jobs where high uncertainty reigns, such as firefighters, coaches, and parents.

“Entrepreneurship is a quintessential notion not of ‘what if this goes wrong?’ but ‘what if this goes right?’” Siegel points out.

“The impulsiveness is the ability to see the upside. Sometimes you don’t think things through, but it’s kind of this notion of ‘Yeah, this is going to be great!’”

“They’re the ones who are not paralyzed by indecision,” says Freeman. “They make decisions based on limited information. Someone else might want more time to think about it, but he who hesitates risks losing. So the person who doesn’t hesitate has an advantage.”

Impulsive might border on rude sometimes—but with a payoff. One entrepreneur was out at a cafe and overheard a stranger talking about his startup, Freeman says. The man impulsively walked over and butted into the conversation—and the stranger ended up becoming an investor in his company.   

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THE WEAKNESS: Your talk-first-think-later ways can piss people off, and your impatience can mean you skip crucial steps.

When you’re angry or frustrated (it happens), impulsivity can blow up important relationships.

Freeman knows one entrepreneur who snapped at a late supplier. The supplier left him after that, and that relationship was hard to replace.

“Mark Twain said it best,” says entrepreneur Brian Moran, a small-business-owner advisor. “He said: When you’re angry count to 10. When you’re very angry, swear.”

“The best thing you can do,” says Moran, “is go to that person and say ‘I’m sorry. Here’s what was happening when you came to me. You caught me off guard, and I was wrong and I’m sorry.’ That to me is the 21st-century version of leadership in business.”

Impulsivity can have major fallout—just look at Twitter, says Moran. One reckless tweet, and you may be apologizing for the rest of your career.

“As an entrepreneur, you need to understand the ramifications of how much life can change on a dime,” says Moran. “Sometimes the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. But you still have to be completely cognizant of it in business.”

But an impulsive person doesn’t have to be angry to ostracize people. You can also be a chronic interrupter, says Freeman—and people tend not to like that.

And you’re a terrible listener, not great for forming relationships and even worse for heeding smart solutions or crucial warnings.

Moran recalls the time he ignored his business coach’s advice, and incurred large losses as a result.

Now he tries to be more like a friend who prides himself on “being the dumbest person in the room,” says Moran. This friend’s approach to every new project is to pretend he knows nothing about it, to listen to others and build from there.

“That’s what we don’t do,” says Moran. “Entrepreneurs don’t listen. We have an idea in our head and that’s all we see. You have to be open to being wrong sometimes.”

Impulsivity may also lead you to skip important steps. Like the entrepreneur who filled a key company position by hiring the first candidate to walk through the door, Freeman says. Turns out the guy wasn’t the right fit, a costly mistake for a small startup.

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THE PIVOT: If you must open your mouth (and of course you do), ask don’t tell—and be inclusive with interruptions.

Step one is to always be aware that your words have an impact on the other person, says Freeman.

So if you’re going to interrupt them, frame your comment in a respectful way.

First, make it a question—say “How did you arrive at that method?” not “Sounds bonkers.”

Or: “That’s an interesting point, do you have an example? Because I wonder if that aspect is scalable.” Don’t say: “That won’t work. Not scalable.”

Asking questions slows down the process, says Freeman. That gives you more opportunity to think and can help the person’s words to sink in.

What’s more, questions are inherently inclusive, so the other person still feels like part of the conversation, and is less likely to think you’re dismissive or rude.  

Besides as Moran points out, entrepreneurs need things repeated. “They’ll get it the second or fifth time around.”

Stave off temptation to skip crucial steps by making a list, suggests Sharon Saline, Psy.D., a psychologist in Massachusetts who specializes in ADHD. Enlist someone else to help you, bounce ideas off that person, and come up with a plan.

Write it down and keep the list somewhere accessible or even visible, Saline says. “For people with ADHD it’s usually helpful to have a visual cue. So that guides you along the path you want to follow.”

And when someone on your team screws up and you’re tempted to fire off an angry email? Try this trick from Moran: Go ahead and write the email (keep the recipient line blank), save the draft, and revisit it in 24 hours. (Bonus points for showing the draft to an outsider to get an objective opinion.) After a good night’s sleep, you’ll likely think better of sending it.

Successful people tie a goal to every action, Moran says. So when you’re taking action—writing an email or sending a tweet—always be thinking about the goal, the desired outcome.

“Ask yourself, ‘If I send this email what is my preferred outcome?’ Do you want this person to leave? Do you want them to send this email out to the entire staff so they can see how heavy handed you were?”

We’ll go ahead and answer that for you: No. No, you don’t.

“Think of yourself as a politician rather than entrepreneur,” Freeman suggests. “The politician is always trying to get votes. The entrepreneur can learn from that, because being an entrepreneur also means getting everyone’s vote.

“If you alienate your constituencies, it’s going to undermine their ability to work on behalf of the company. And you can’t lead unless you have people who are willing to follow.”

Now that’s a plotline with a happy ending.

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