Is Brain Science the Key to Your Success?

James O’Brien

AMEX Open Forum, December 17, 2012

In the search of the holy grail of business success, one expert believes she has found the source. It’s inside your own brain.

In her new book, The Entrepreneurial Instinct, investor Monica Mehta says the entrepreneurial instinct is a mostly quantifiable blend of brain parts and neurochemicals. However, Mehta also suggests that anyone can learn how to trigger the kinds of brain activity that front-load their projects to succeed.

Inner Force of Nature

Mehta points to two formulas for business success: a propensity for risk and the ability to adapt to the scenarios that emerge when taking those risks.

She says a key factor driving those characteristics is dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain.

“In the ability to take risky bets, there seems to be something happening on one side of the brain among entrepreneurs,” she says. “There’s a chemical release of dopamine in the reward pathway.”

Tests conducted in 2008 at the University of Cambridge back up Mehta’s proposition: If you don’t have just the right mix of dopamine and dopamine-ready receptors in the frontal lobe of the brain, you’re probably more likely to resist risk. You also might not be as adaptable midstream during your start-up process.

Another section of the brain, the amygdala, is where humans tend to house memories connected to pain. Entrepreneurs, Mehta writes, may in fact be people for whom that memory center works in a particular way.

“To take rewarding risks, you have to shut off the fear,” Mehta says. “For most of us, fear is a knee-jerk reaction.”

Want to capitalize on that dopamine-rich impulse? You’ll need to resist the list-making, double-checking, fear-mongering nub of your own amygdala, Mehta says.

Developing a Risky and Adaptable Brain

You may not have the brain chemistry to become the next Steve Jobs, but Mehta says entrepreneurs aren’t shackled by biology. She proposes a second formula: not one of chemicals and physical processes, but one based in action and development over time.

For one thing, business owners can build a formula for success into their day-to-day work. The thrust of this equation is to deemphasize behaviors that make our pre-frontal lobes, where the amygdala lives, kick in.

She suggests postponing the part where you run all the numbers and envision all the obstacles until you’re deep into the process.

Also, remember that old adage about learning from failure as being an important part of success? That could be the wrong approach. Since the formula for replicating what the best entrepreneurial brains do depends on dopamine, you’ve got keep the juices flowing. Front-loading your work with numerous small successes and reward experiences can trigger the kind of dopamine levels that encourage the brain to keep churning on the creative front.

Rack up early wins. Each time, you’re boosting your own levels of dopamine.

Also, visualize your own success. Mehta says when it comes to dopamine, her research shows that the brain doesn’t care a whole lot about whether your successes are real or just envisioned.

And protect your assets. Freewheeling all the way to beta may prompt you to take rewarding risks and minimize the fears that can hinder a successful launch, but it can also prompt a lot of cash burn. Running out of funds (obviously) undermines all your otherwise good work.

An Entrepreneur (and Neuroscientist) Weighs In

“Early wins likely influence those areas of the brain involved in pleasure and reward,” agrees Dr. Barry Sandrew, a neuroscientist and digital colorization entrepreneur in the film industry. ”It’s a matter of conditioning. Incremental successes tend to lead a person to even greater successes because the risks, while still there, become less of a focus.”

Sandrew adds that “the act of positive thinking, optimism can be rewarding in of itself. To some people, this comes naturally while others have to practice it.”

And that’s the difference, Mehta suggests, between the entrepreneurial instinct that for some is already built in and for others must be worked at. She’s encouraging new business owners to not worry too much about the former, and to emphasize ways to bring about the latter. It’s the brainy-chemistry path to success.