Some of us are born to be entrepreneurs, some of us just don’t have the right mental make up to cut it – but could science, by way of Buddhism, help to change that? Serial angel investor Peter Read believes so, at least in part. In a talk at Heureka on Tuesday, he revealed his work with top psychology and neuroscience experts to see if founders could learn the ‘soft skills’ he believes are necessary to be a entrepreneurial success, alongside ‘hard skills’ such as coding.
Read, whose investments in Berlin include Toast, HowDo and Loopcam, was giving a talk entitled ‘are you the kind of entrepreneur that angel investors want to back?’ during which he explained the skills he looks for in potential investees.
The hard skills are relatively easy to learn – there are any number of places you can go to be taught how to program, design or run a business, for example. But soft skills are a different matter.
Read further splits them into two areas; “protecting the downside of being an entrepreneur” and “unlocking the upside”. The former involves skills for “living in a very, very uncertain, changing, dynamic environment. The stress and anxiety go along with that. And therefore [the] capability to manage that stress, to deal with it.”
By unlocking the upside, Read explained, he means “having a refresh button; [the ability to] come up with ideas, keep evolving, keep innovating, keep disrupting. And having self awareness of others, empathy, and communication skills to take other people on that journey with you.”
Yet these sorts of mental and emotional qualities are usually seen as being innate, rather than something you learn. Read, however, believes that the theory of mindfulness, of concentrating on what is happening right now rather than the past or the future, can help you improve on them. Emanating from Buddhist meditation, mindfulness involves the focusing of attention and awareness and the adoption of an open-minded acceptance, and its backers say it can help reduce stress and depression.
Read has been working together with the likes of Mark Williams, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, and Felicia Huppert, a professor at Cambridge University specialising in cognitive and behavioural neuroscience, to see how far this effect can be taken.
Read has also spoken with Jon Cabat-Zinn, an academic at the University of Massachusetts Medicine School who helped to popularise the idea of mindfulness in the West.
Some serious minds – and Read believes that while you can’t just take a random person and transform them into the perfect startup founder, mindfulness can nonetheless help. “Whether you can take somebody who was going to be a racing driver and make them into an entrepreneur, I have no idea. That almost sounds like genetic engineering. But you can take somebody who has a bunch of entrepreneurial skills, and help a good entrepreneur to become a great entrepreneur. The language is important; it’s not like you can make somebody something, but you can support them, you can help them improve their soft skills.”
It is easy to be cynical about how much of an effect mindfulness can actually have – many would undoubtedly dismiss the whole thing as a nonsensical fad – but Read insists that schemes such as the Mindfulness in Schools Project, which tries to help pupils improve their “well-being and learning”, do make a real impact.
And he also believes the same can be true of entrepreneurs who perhaps want to learn more soft skills. “It seems to me,” he added, “that that is much harder than learning the hard skills – but it is possible. We don’t have to take your genes or the neural structure of your brain as an immutable given; there is something that can be done to change it.”