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To be a successful entrepreneur necessitates not only a strong drive and passion for the creation of novelty, but also a capacity for overcoming adversity. But adversity can come in many forms and can occur well before a passion for entrepreneurship emerges. For example, one common form of adversity experienced in adolescence is bullying, affecting approximately 20 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18.
Although the negative consequences of bullying are extensive and can persist well into adulthood, some entrepreneurs have found that such negative experiences have had positive effects on their adult life, enabling them to be better equipped to handle and overcome the challenges they face in their own ventures.
Curious about the link between adolescent bullying and entrepreneurship, I recently sat down with Randy Ginsburg, author of Adversity to Advantage: How to Overcome Bullying & Find Entrepreneurial Success.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
What motivated you to write this book?
Last June, I attended Next Gen Summit. I met so many incredible individuals and heard their unique stories and drive for entrepreneurship. So that made me look inward and think to myself: What was the driving force behind my own passion for entrepreneurship? I took some time to reflect on the question and then realized that a big part of it actually came from my experiences with bullying. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a desire to create, but also a desire to prove myself to all those who mistreated me or doubted me in the past. From there, I began to wonder whether I was the only one, or whether there were other people who went through this and felt the same way. While there were articles about entrepreneurs who also dealt with adolescent bullying, there were no books about how the two were intertwined. So I decided to write one myself. I started doing preliminary research on anyone I could find who had similar experiences, such as Elon Musk and Tom Ford. I also looked for other entrepreneurs who were more attainable to interview and then reached out to them.
So basically, you lay out the argument that there may be an eventual bright side to bullying. Can you walk us through this premise and how it relates to entrepreneurship?
I stumbled onto the work of Dr. Ellen deLara, a psychologist, researcher and professor at the Falk School of Social Work at Syracuse University. She conducted a study of 900 adults ages 18-65, with occupations ranging from doctors and lawyers to service workers. She found that nearly 50 percent of those surveyed believed bullying had a positive effect on their adult lives. This included increased resiliency, empathy, emotional intelligence, moral development and goal attainment. Once I read this study, I knew my idea had legs. Then I went and interviewed entrepreneurs with a history of bullying, and they confirmed that they had felt all of those things in their own lives, especially the development of their resilience and emotional intelligence. They credited those strengths of character to being bullied. Entrepreneurship, of course, is such an ambiguous career path, with uncertain financial and job security and constant rejection. So having that ability to get back up after being knocked down and keep powering through in the face of adversity is really important. The emotional intelligence aspect is also particularly important because entrepreneurship is such a social profession.
How did you convince these entrepreneurs to sit down and talk with you, especially given the sensitive nature of the topic?
I sent a lot of cold emails. Initially, it was a bit hard to find people willing to talk about their experiences, since bullying is something that many people may not feel comfortable talking about. That being said, there were some who were really proud of their story and wanted to use it to help others. One in particular was Andrew Nikou, CEO of OpenGate Capital, which is a multi-billion dollar private equity firm specializing in turnarounds and acquisitions. He spoke out about his bullying in Entrepreneur a few years back. I read the article and sent him a cold email. He responded almost immediately and was happy to talk. Once I would interview someone, I would always ask if they knew of other people in their network who might be interested in speaking to me. This also led to a handful of other interviews.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from these conversations?
Seeing the emotional intelligence aspect emerge quite frequently. Some of the people I talked to were 40, 50 years old, and when telling their stories they remembered, down to the minutest details, memories of the trauma they experienced. These stories and experiences really stuck with them, even years later, and it was clear that it played an integral role in developing their emotional intelligence, empathy and humanistic approach to interacting with others. Seeing from so many people that the memories never truly fade or go away was really powerful.
What suggestions would you give to current and aspiring entrepreneurs for maintaining mental health and well-being in the face of adversity?
I think it’s important to find a right work-life balance and avoid basing your self-worth on the overall success of the company. Basically, be able to separate the two, so even if your company fails, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. Many entrepreneurs will “become” their business, and from some of the people I’ve studied, this mindset can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. So I think it’s important to avoid letting your business consume your identity. Also, in order for your company to be as successful as possible, you need to be as physically and mentally sharp as possible. Taking some of the steps I mention in the book, whether seeking therapy or just setting time aside for exercise or meditation and mindfulness, is really important for any current or aspiring entrepreneur.
I understand your entrepreneurial origins started early, when you started a fairly lucrative sneaker business in high school. In retrospect, do you think the adversity you faced contributed to your early success?
I think it has helped me with my emotional intelligence, my moral development and, most importantly, with my resilience and work ethic. I didn’t realize then, when I was young and running that sneaker business, that bullying also had a positive effect on me, because I was still so close in proximity to the situation. But now it’s really evident that those traits directly come from my being bullied.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
Teach yourself to embrace your differences because oftentimes you’re bullied for being different. But most of the time, especially in entrepreneurship, your differences are what make you successful.