Do Entrepreneurs Have the Explorer Gene?

“Why can’t I have my acquisition and enjoy it too?” he asked.

A successful founder fresh off the sale of his company, my friend was experimenting with “temporary retirement” in a mountain ski town. And he was surrounded by people who savored the slow life.

Over the past few years, his life was breakneck entrepreneurship. And it put him through the wringer. Now, he wanted to bask in the post-acquisition glow, free of VCs, lawyers, and pinging, buzzing, beeping apps.

But he called me one night with a dilemma.

He passed two ski bums soaking in life on a sunny bench. And the scene was everything he thought post-acquisition life should be. They were blissfully content with nothing to do, no one to impress, and no next venture coming down the pike.

There was only one problem. He needed to feel productive and mission-critical. He needed to be needed. The same traits that drove his success – the motivation, anticipation, and flywheel energy – made ski bum style happiness more fidgety than fun.

And so he asked me, “Can I be happy if I’m not seeking, not exploring, not building?”

Why couldn’t he access the ski bum version of happiness? Why do entrepreneurs push so hard to reach the end-goal, only to realize the off-switch is jammed?

We first have to understand why entrepreneurs are driven to seek, explore, and “chew up the furniture.”

Turns out, the entrepreneurial persona is often the result of a genetic mutation.

Researchers found a link between a dopamine gene variation associated with ADHD and the likelihood of being an entrepreneur. This genetic variant is found in ~20% of the human population, and is closely tied to curiosity, sensation seeking, and restlessness.

Psychologist John Gartner says it best, “Entrepreneurs are like border collies–they have to run. If you keep them inside, they chew up the furniture.”

From an evolutionary perspective, “pre-historic entrepreneurs” were critical to our species survival. The ADHD gene is often called the “explorer gene” because those with the variant would explore unfamiliar territory and take risks to ensure the survival of their tribe.

The mutation that drove humans out of Africa and Columbus to America is likely the same that drives Elon Musk into space or the flighty, distractible Warby Parker founders to pioneer scalable hipster glasses.

We then have to ask if a seeking mentality makes entrepreneurs happy. 

Turns out, the “Happiness is the Journey Not the Destination” poster in your second grade classroom was on to something.

Neuroscience suggests that it’s not the fulfillment of desires, but the search itself, that makes us happy. Reaching your goals isn’t as satisfying as the journey. Research says that seeking, not achieving, is the primary emotion responsible for happiness.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp identified the seven primal emotions: seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. And his research shows that that seeking – characterized by anticipation and desire – is most closely tied to happiness.

Our neurological seeking system is plugged into the dopaminergic system – the “crack” of the brain. And entrepreneurs, with their default set to “seeking” mode, are constantly getting hits. It’s addictive and hugely satisfying.

So does the “Explorer Gene” give entrepreneurs a happiness advantage?

Science would suggest so.

The entrepreneurial happiness logic statement goes something like: IF seeking is hardwired into the entrepreneur’s biology AND seeking is the primary emotion that governs happiness, THEN entrepreneurs are uniquely capable of happiness.

If your non-entrepreneur friends’ version of happiness makes you claustrophobic and twitchy, it’s because your brain is wired for a different kind of happiness.

With the “Explorer Gene,” entrepreneurs will get more happiness from the journey than the end-goal.

While everyone should learn to enjoy life’s slow moments (mindfulness is a potent practice for entrepreneurs**), don’t sweat it if a week-long beach vacation or twenty years of retirement sounds like a unique form of torture. Don’t worry if the idea of a finish line or dead time sounds more stressful than stress relieving.

You’re a modern day explorer. It’s in your genes. So enjoy your achievements, your accolades, and your God-willing acquisition.

But to be happy, never stop seeking.

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